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SUSAN J. DOUGLAS 

■ ■ 

Inventing 

American 

Broadcasting 

1899-1922 










INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


I 



JOHNS HOPKINS STUDIES IN THE HISTORY OF 
TECHNOLOGY 

General Editor: Thomas P. Hughes 



INVENTING 

AMERICAN 

BROADCASTING 

1899-1922 


SUSAN J. DOUGLAS 


THE JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PRESS 
Baltimore and London 




© 1987 The Johns Hopkins University Press 
All rights reserved 

Printed in the United States of America 


Originally published, 1987 
Second printing, 1988 
Johns Hopkins Paperbacks edition, 1989 

The Johns Hopkins University Press 
701 West 40th Street Baltimore, Maryland 21211 
The Johns Hopkins Press Ltd., London 


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 
Douglas, Susan J. (Susan Jeanne), 1950- 
Inventing American broadcasting, 1899-1922. 
(Johns Hopkins studies in the history of technology) 
Includes index. 

1. Radio broadcasting — United States — History. 

2. Radio — United States — History. I. Title. II. Series. 
HE8698.D685 1987 384.54’0973 87-3717 

ISBN 0-8018-3387-6 
ISBN 0-8018-3832-0 (pbk.) 


Photo Credits: Photographs appearing on pp. 18, 24, 69, 74, 83, 96, 99, 152, 157, 158, 
198, 201, 204, 277, 294, 302, and 310 are courtesy of the Archives Center, National 
Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Photographs on pp. 188 and 
228 are copyright © 1907/12 by the New York Times Company. Reprinted by permis- 
sion. Photographs on pp. 21 and 49 are courtesy of the New- York Histoncal Society. 
Photograph appearing on p. 301 is courtesy of Westinghouse Electric Corporation. 



To my father, Colonel Harry V. Douglas, 
and to the memory of my mother, Barbara 




CONTENTS 


List of Illustrations 
ix 

Preface and Acknowledgments 
xi 

Introduction 

xv 

ONE 

Marconi and the America’s Cup: The Making of 
an Inventor-Hero, 1899 
3 

TWO 

Competition over Wireless Technology: The Inventors’ Struggles for 
Technical Distinction, 1899-1903 
29 

THREE 

The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors, 1899-1905 

61 

FOUR 

Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy, 1899-1906 

102 

FIVE 

Inventors as Entrepreneurs: Success and Failure in the 
Wireless Business, 1906-1912 

144 


■ vu 



Contents 


SIX 

Popular Culture and Populist Technology: The Amateur 
Operators, 1906-1912 
187 

SEVEN 

The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation, 1910-1912 

216 

EIGHT 

The Rise of Military and Corporate Control, 1912-1919 

240 

NINE 

The Social Construction of American Broadcasting, 1912-1922 

292 

Epilogue 

315 

Notes 

323 


Index 

355 



ILLUSTRATIONS 


Replica of Marconi’s early wireless apparatus 18 
Headlines announcing Marconi’s first American wireless 
demonstration 21 

Guglielmo Marconi reading a wireless message 24 
Lee De Forest 49 

Operators in training at the Marconi Company’s institute 69 

Wireless operator aboard ship 74 

Early NESCO wireless station 83 

De Forest exhibit at the St. Louis Exposition 96 

John S. Stone 99 

Reginald Fessenden 152 

Fessenden’s 100,000-cycle alternator 157 

Testing Fessenden’s wireless telephone 158 

Amateur operator Walter J. Willenborg 188 

Two early crystal detectors 198 

Advertisement for the Electro-Importing Company 201 

Jack Binns, hero of the Republic disaster 204 

Wireless telegraphy makes front-page news 228 

U.S. Signal Corps recruits training in wireless 277 

Home wireless station 294 

The radio hobby is promoted to girls 301 

Amateur operators listening to a ballgame 302 

The first radio-delivered lecture, Tufts University 310 


ix • 




PREFACE AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 


MY GENERATION grew up in an environment saturated by the images 
and messages of the mass media. We were the first television generation, 
and the broadcast media have always exerted a powerful influence on 
our perceptions of reality, our self-images, and our dreams for our society 
and ourselves. It is no surprise, then, that when some of us became 
historians, we wanted to understand better the rise and impact of the 
communications systems that had so insinuated themselves into Ameri- 
can life and thought. We wanted to analyze intellectually as adults what 
had gripped us emotionally since childhood. 

I became interested in origins. How was America’s broadcasting 
system invented in the first place? 1 thought the answer lay in the 1920s, 
and that is where I began. I quickly learned that this was hardly the 
beginning; nor was this era, in the end, the most interesting to me. As I 
kept going back in time — initially, I thought, to get background mate- 
rial — I was struck by how the basic questions surrounding broadcast- 
ing’s role in society were raised decades before radio broadcasting as we 
know it began. 1 was also struck by how many precedents were set 
before KDKA ever went on the air. Thus, I chose to examine in detail 
what has sometimes been dismissed as broadcasting’s “pre-history,” and 
to argue that it was during this period between 1899 and 1922 that the 
basic technological, managerial, and cultural template of American 
broadcasting was cast. 

This book represents my efforts to draw from and intertwine the 
two areas of study that have most influenced me: American studies and 
the history of technology. It was in these areas that 1 encountered teach- 
ers who changed forever my way of thinking and who offered me vastly 


• xi • 



Preface and Acknowledgments 


expanded notions about history and culture. The book has its origins in 
my undergraduate training and interests, and I would like to thank Mal- 
colm Marsden, who introduced me to American Studies and taught me 
that historical information was not confined to historical texts; Carmine 
Dandrea, who helped me learn how to think analytically; and Donn 
Neal, whose love of history was contagious, and whose constant guid- 
ance and support led me to pursue the study of history after college. In 
graduate school, Patrick Malone encouraged women students to tackle 
the history of technology, and to link that history to the study of culture. 
Mari Jo Buhle helped me understand the connections between gender 
roles and the rise of industrial capitalism. And Hunter Dupree, always 
asking those “big questions” for which he became famous, was the 
perfect mentor for those students whose work crossed disciplinary 
boundaries. Although no one at Brown at the time studied the media, 
Pat, Mari Jo, and Hunter encouraged my research in this area, and thus 
allowed me to pursue the work I thought important. I am lucky indeed to 
have had such generous and gifted teachers. My thinking at this time was 
also enriched enormously by my friendship with John Kelly, whose 
intellectual creativity provided essential nurturance and stimulation. 

My research and writing were actively supported by a range of 
colleagues and institutions. Bernard Finn and James Brittain arranged for 
a research grant from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, 
and without this grant I would have been unable to visit important 
archives. An early sabbatical allowed me to write a major portion of this 
book, and I am deeply grateful to my colleagues and the administration at 
Hampshire College who made this possible. I would like to thank the 
staff at the Columbia Oral History Library and the National Archives for 
their assistance. Bob and Nancy Merriam, who run the New England 
Wireless and Steam Museum in Rhode Island, opened their library to me, 
talked with me about the project, and provided personal demonstrations 
of old wireless apparatus. Ellen McGrew, an archivist at the North Car- 
olina Slate Archives, not only expedited my research with the Fessenden 
Papers, but also offered support and friendship during my entire stay in 
Raleigh. Before the Archives Center opened at the Museum of American 
History, the Clark Collection was housed in the museum’s Division of 
Electricity, and here every possible courtesy and kindness was extended 
to me. Barney Finn offered guidance and advice, Elliot Sivowitch and 
Ray Hutt tracked down sources for me and helped me locate stores of 
archival material, and Elliot shared his office with me while I did my 
research. Anastasia Atsiknoudas was a constant source of encourage- 
ment and help and, whether she knows it or not, was probably the 
person most responsible for my thinking about the effect organizational 


• xu ■ 



Preface and Acknowledgments 


structure and behavior can have on technological change. Robert Hard- 
ing at the Smithsonian’s new Archives Center helped considerably with 
photographic research. Keith Geddes at the British Science Museum and 
Betty Hance at the Marconi Company Archives expedited my research in 
England. Gioia Marconi Braga, Marconi’s daughter, generously invited 
me into her home and allowed me to read her father’s early letters. I 
wrote nearly all of the manuscript in the Neilson Library at Smith Col- 
lege, and I am indebted to the staff there for their consistently profes- 
sional assistance. 

When 1 was circulating the manuscript for comments and reactions, I 
wanted my colleagues to say that it was great and needed no revision. 
None of them did this, of course: they were much better friends and more 
dedicated scholars than that. Instead, they offered thoughtful, careful, 
and often tough criticisms, and I am deeply grateful to them for pushing 
me to think harder and revise the manuscript yet one more time. Chris 
Sterling’s criticisms of an early draft spurred me to do more research and 
to rethink the purpose of the book. Suggestions from David Allison, Alex 
Roland, and Merritt Roe Smith helped refine the material on the U.S. 
Navy and radio, and Roe was especially helpful and supportive. Frank 
Couvares and Barry O’Connell grilled me on the amateur chapter, and 
their questions prompted a major reevaluation of the material I was 
using. My many discussions with Bernie Carlson about the history of 
electricity, communications, and entrepreneurship enriched the book 
enormously. Nancy Fitch, Joan Landes, and Ted Norton constantly 
opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about cultural history and have 
been role models in interdisciplinary work. Two readers, whose identity 
I do not know, gave the manuscript an especially careful reading, and 
they posed major conceptual questions with which I was compelled to 
wrestle. The Society for the History of Technology has provided me and 
many others with a forum in which we could test and exchange ideas, 
and this has been critical to my scholarly development. My colleagues in 
Hampshire’s Feminist Studies Program continue to open my eyes to new 
ways of thinking, and I remain indebted to this impressive group of 
women for their support. I would also like to thank my many energetic, 
earnest, and thoughtful students at Hampshire, on whom I have tried out 
ideas, who have taken an interest in the project, and whose questions, 
feedback, and concern has meant more to me than they know. 

Several friends helped above and beyond the call of duty. Danny 
Czitrom has been a constant source of advice and support, and to have a 
colleague with his interests, let alone of his caliber, just down the road 
has enriched my work enormously. Michael Brondoli, although deeply 
involved in the preparation of a novel, read the entire manuscript and 


XIII 



Preface and Acknowledgments 


wrote detailed comments that boosted my spirits during often very dis- 
pirited times. David Kerr made invaluable comments on writing style 
and historical themes, and helped enormously with his specialty, jour- 
nalism history. Hugh Aitken has seen this project through from its most 
tentative and awkward beginnings, reading draft after draft, and offering 
highly detailed comments on everything from specific sources to larger 
conceptual approaches. Without Hugh’s intellectual rigor, his insistence 
on clear and precise writing, and his unflagging support, my develop- 
ment as a historian would have been deeply impoverished. My debt to 
Joe Corn is also huge. Few people have had someone read their manu- 
script with as much care as Joe brought to mine. His considerable skills as 
an editor, and his commitment to linking the history of technology to 
cultural history, informed his criticisms of the manuscript, and prompted 
major revisions and reorganization. 

At The Johns Hopkins University Press, Henry Tom has been the 
perfect editor: he knew when to be patient and when to prod, when to 
be flexible and when to be firm. His skills and support have been greatly 
appreciated. Thomas Parke Hughes offered much needed advice and 
encouragement during the entire process. My copy editor, Jackie 
Wehmueller, was a professional in every way. And I want to thank my 
typist, Leni Bowen, who caught mistakes 1 had missed, who was always 
on schedule, and who has been a delight to work with. 

My largest debts, both intellectual and emotional, are to my hus- 
band, Taylor R. Durham. Simply put, I could not have written this book 
without him. His love for ideas, his broadly interdisciplinary approach to 
knowledge, and the delight he takes in intellectual discourse made him 
the perfect listener, and an even better adviser. There were many times 
when I lost faith in this project, but he did not, and he never failed to 
remind me of his faith in me. He also went out of his way to make it 
possible for me to write whenever I had to, and that meant taking on 
more than his fair share of extra chores and errands, which ate into his 
own work time. T.R. did not simply pay lip service to egalitarianism; he 
put it into practice every day. 

Finally, 1 would like to thank my parents. Of course, they helped 
sustain me financially during college and then through the seemingly 
endless years of graduate school. But more importantly, my father, Harry 
V. Douglas, and my mother, Barbara, each in their very different and 
often indirect ways, taught me a critically important lesson: that intellec- 
tual work has no value unless it is enriched by large doses of empathy, 
enthusiasm, and a sense of justice. I dedicate this book to them. 


• xiv • 



INTRODUCTION 


IN THE SPRING OF 1922, a “radio boom” swept the United States. The 
craze was cast, in the pages of the press, as a “fever” tearing through the 
population, inflaming all in its path. The fever seemed to come from 
nowhere, it had a power and force all its own, and few were immune to 
its symptoms. “In all the history of inventing,” exclaimed a typical edi- 
torial, “nothing has approached the rise of radio from obscurity to 
power.” 1 The words sudden and rapid, as well as amazing and astound- 
ing, appeared frequently in magazines and newspapers, reinforcing the 
epidemic metaphor. 

Radio was portrayed as an autonomous force, capable of revolution- 
izing American culture. It was a machine that would make history. It 
was also portrayed as a technology without a history. Rarely, in those 
heady, breathless articles about the radio boom, was reference made to 
the twenty-five years of technical, economic, and cultural experimenta- 
tion that had led to and produced radio broadcasting. Radio was thus 
presented as an invention not burdened by a past or shackled to the 
constraining conventions of the established social order, but as an in- 
vention free to reshape, on its own terms, the patterns of American life. 

But radio did indeed have a past. It had not simply burst from the 
blue in 1922, as such press accounts suggested. Nor was it an autono- 
mous force somehow outside of or above the existing order of things. On 
the contrary, this technology was very much embedded in and shaped by 
a rich web of cultural practices and ideas. Radio broadcasting resulted 
from more than two decades of scientific and technical research, institu- 
tional jockeying for position, and changing conceptions of how the in- 
vention should be used, and by whom. During this twenty-three-year 


• xv • 



Introduction 


period, precedents were set that would determine, irrevocably, how 
broadcasting would be managed and thought about in the United States. 
Yet very little attention has been paid to the complicated social and 
technical processes that culminated in radio broadcasting. Even most 
historians of broadcasting, after giving a cursory review of radio’s “pre- 
history,” focus on the radio boom of the 1920s, when radio already 
meant broadcasting and the technology was controlled by a few major 
corporations. The ascendency of advertising as the source of radio’s finan- 
cial support and the emergence and subsequent dominance of the net- 
works seemed the inevitable results of corporate control. This emphasis 
on the 1920s as broadcasting’s formative era prompts concessions to both 
economic and technological determinism: it makes the communications 
corporations appear more prescient than they actually were, and it 
grants the technology a life of its own, seemingly impervious to the 
culture in which it evolved. This emphasis also fails to challenge the 
journalistic myth of a sudden, sweeping radio fever, or to confront the 
connections between myths such as this and the actual history of broad- 
casting. 

This book is about what led up to the “radio boom”: it analyzes how 
individuals, institutions, ideas, and technology interacted to produce ra- 
dio broadcasting. The story begins in 1899, when Guglielmo Marconi 
demonstrated his new invention, the wireless telegraph, during the 
America’s Cup yacht races in New York harbor. The invention sent dots 
and dashes — the Morse code — through the “ether” without wires. Mar- 
coni concentrated on selling wireless to major, commercial customers, 
such as steamship companies and newspapers, with already established 
needs for such a device. He was offering what was then wishfully yet too 
narrowly referred to as “point-to-point” communication between spe- 
cific senders and receivers. He was not marketing the device to indi- 
viduals, and he did not conceive of transmitting voice or music. Broad- 
casting was simply not part of his scheme. But during a nearly twenty- 
five-year process marked by technical improvements, unanticipated ap- 
plications, economic and organizational transitions, and considerable 
though intermittent journalistic fanfare, wireless telegraphy, the nine- 
teenth-century invention, became radio broadcasting, one of the funda- 
mental developments of twentieth-century society. 

My aim is to examine this transformation and to show that an analy- 
sis of radio’s early history — the years between 1899 and 1922 — is crit- 
ical to understanding how and why America’s broadcasting system as- 
sumed the structure and role it ultimately came to possess. Like virtually 
all emerging technologies, radio did not simply appear one day in its fully 


• xvi • 



Introduction 


realized form, its components complete and its applications and signifi- 
cance apparent. Radio apparatus, and what all that apparatus meant to a 
particular society at a particular time, had to be elaborately constructed. 
Just as individuals and institutions worked, over time, to refine the in- 
vention, so did these inventors and institutions, as well as the press and 
the public, all interact to spin a fabric of meanings within which this 
technology would be wrapped. 

This book, then, is about the social construction of radio. 2 It provides 
a detailed account of the inventors who made radio possible, and ex- 
plores how their technical contributions and business practices shaped 
the early industry. It examines how major institutions, such as General 
Electric, American Telephone and Telegraph, and the U.S. Navy, influ- 
enced the invention’s evolution. But the book also analyzes how radio 
was thought about and represented in the pages of the popular press, and 
how that representation changed between 1899 and 1922, for I am 
arguing that, just as individuals and institutions, and the interactions 
between them, influenced the course of technical adaptation, so did 
journalistic portrayals of radio’s promise and significance. 

How do machines come to mean what they do? How is the public 
significance of inventions constructed and transformed? Certainly the 
press plays an important role in this process. For most people at the time, 
their first vision of radio and its predecessor, wireless telegraphy, was 
provided through newspaper and magazine articles. For inventors trying 
to promote their inventions and themselves, newspaper coverage was 
critical to success. This coverage was hardly neutral or objective: it 
legitimated certain uses of the invention while condemning others, and it 
favored a very particular, narrow, and romantic style of technical jour- 
nalism. Certain stories were told again and again; other stories, impor- 
tant stories, were never told at all. The press, then, by presenting and 
endorsing certain attitudes toward radio, defined a pattern of ideas and 
beliefs about how radio should be used and who should control it. 

Prevailing media definitions reveal a great deal about the role of 
technology in American culture, and about dominant attitudes toward 
technology and power. Yet such media definitions have been largely 
ignored. It is my purpose here to examine which definitions and in- 
terpretations came into play and gained preeminence during the years 
when wireless telegraphy became radio. Through this study, I hope to 
establish the importance of analyzing the ideological frameworks within 
which emerging technologies evolve. We can look at old articles about 
radio fever as fanciful and misguided stories of little consequence, or we 
can take them seriously, and analyze the connections they reveal be- 


• XVII ■ 



Introduction 


tween technology and ideology, and between language and legitimation. 

I have chosen the latter approach for several reasons. Most impor- 
tantly, I believe that our understanding of how America’s first broadcast- 
ing technology was shaped can be significantly enriched if we view it 
through the prism of recent thought about the media. Scholars have 
demonstrated how today’s media, by repeating and reinforcing certain 
values while ignoring or denigrating others, help legitimate and perpetu- 
ate the established social order. A faith in capitalism as an economic 
system superior to all others, the insistence that our existing form of 
government is democratic, the creed that consumerism equals freedom, 
and the legitimation of economic and political elites as the rightful hold- 
ers of authority — all these constitute the dominant belief system as 
broadcast on television or presented in mass magazines . 3 At the same 
time, these media images are often filled with cultural contradictions, 
because there is a strong tension between traditional American values 
that antedate the rise of monopolistic capitalism and the values monopo- 
listic capitalism requires to survive. Industrial capitalism was initially 
built on such values as hard work, thrift, self-denial, and deferred grati- 
fication. For many Americans those values were tied to Christian princi- 
ples and community solidarity, altruism being the central anchoring value 
of both. Advanced capitalism, however, which depends on a large and 
robust market of consumers, can only survive if people bask in narcissism 
and come to believe in the importance of leisure, instant self-gratification, 
and spending . 4 Thus are Americans pulled between competing value 
systems, tom between the need to feel productive, selfless, generous, 
and noble, on the one hand, and the desire to luxuriate in the private, 
status-seeking, self-indulgent offerings of consumer capitalism on the 
other. What role do the media play in resolving this tension? By visually 
and rhetorically blending the past with the present, selflessness with 
spending, and tradition with modernity, they help construct new myths 
and heroes that justify and romanticize the status quo. Thus do the media 
mine the nearly depleted veins of tradition to produce an ideological 
alloy that buttresses the structures of capitalism. 

These cultural contradictions are not new; neither are the ways in 
which media images and language serve to mediate between old and 
new. Yet we know too little about the early history of this process, and 
we know even less about how the broadcast media, which transmit this 
ideology, were themselves shaped by the values and beliefs of the estab- 
lished print media. Our ignorance stems from the fact that too few histo- 
rians of technology have studied the mass media, and too few media 
scholars have concentrated on media portrayals of technology, especially 
past portrayals . 5 Yet the invention of new devices and the role of indus- 


• xviii ■ 



Introduction 


trialism in American life were dominant themes in the popular press in 
the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact, one might 
argue that it was during this period that the press’s method of covering 
and interpreting technological change was developed. In other words, 
what scholars have identified as the functions of the mass media in the 
late twentieth century were being formulated and refined during the first 
twenty-three years of radio’s history. Radio was hardly the focal point of 
such formulations, but it does offer an excellent example of how they 
evolved. 

Ultimately, this book seeks to juxtapose the public, journalistic ac- 
counts of radio’s development with the private, behind-the-scenes strug- 
gles to perfect and control the invention for commercial exploitation. I 
have, so far, emphasized the importance of studying media definitions of 
this emerging technology; I do not intend to suggest, however, that the 
press by itself played a determining role in radio’s development, or that 
such analysis should replace technical and organizational history. Rather, 
all three stories — how the invention was designed and refined, how 
inventors and organizations either succeeded or failed in exploiting the 
invention, and which aspects of the story the press covered and which it 
did not — must be interwoven for us to understand the process of tech- 
nological assimilation and legitimation. 

The inventors and, later, the institutions seeking to profit from wire- 
less telegraphy had to succeed in three different but interconnected 
arenas: technology, business strategy, and the press. Control over pa- 
tents, which gave the inventor a complete technological system and 
which denied entry to competitors, was, of course, key. But without a 
well-conceived business strategy that accurately identified clients and 
both promoted and protected the invention in the marketplace, the in- 
ventor would not have been able to survive in America’s capitalist 
setting. 

Also of importance, however, and most frequently neglected by 
historians, were publicly articulated ideas and values as represented in 
the mainstream media. For those technologies not tied to the factory 
system or designed for and adapted within an organizational setting, 
public reception mattered. Prevailing stories about a particular tech- 
nology legitimated some men as “rightful inventors” while denying rec- 
ognition to others. Stories in the press could help sell stock and attract 
clients. They could influence demand for a particular invention. And they 
could inform readers about the technical inadequacies of inventions. 
Consequently, developments in the journalistic arena could dramatically 
affect technology as well as business strategy. 

This, then, is the synthesis I am attempting. I see two historical 


• xix • 



Introduction 


realities affecting the development of radio: the processes of centraliza- 
tion and institutionalization — private, rarely seen, often incremental and 
amorphous, and extraordinarily powerful; and the public, communal 
mediation of those processes in the press, a mediation which influenced 
at the same time it was informed by competing attitudes toward tech- 
nology, business, and inventors. These parallel and often interdependent 
realities would produce both short- and long-term effects. They would 
affect the technology’s capabilities — which ones would be developed 
and which would atrophy — and they would influence the organiza- 
tional structures that would emerge to manage the invention. Sometimes 
they were in phase, and their pull on the technology would be reinforc- 
ing; at other times, their tides pulling in quite different directions, they 
left the invention and its promoters adrift. By exploring both the institu- 
tional and the popular responses to early radio, and the interactions 
between them, we can best understand the richness of that process we 
call technical change. 

What distinguishes this book from other histories of radio and broad- 
casting is its emphasis on radio’s early development and its interpretive 
perspective. Erik Barnouw’s three-volume History of Broadcasting in 
the United States and Christopher Sterling and John Kittross’s Stay 
Tuned cover, in highly readable detail, the rise of broadcasting from 
radio’s earliest beginnings, but the emphasis of both studies is on the 
decades following 1919. The standard general account of radio’s early 
years has been Gleason Archer’s History of Radio to 1926, published in 
1938. Archer’s book, which provides overly generous accounts of the 
role the U.S. Navy, RCA, and especially David Samoff, president of RCA, 
played in the rise of radio broadcasting, simply lacks a critical framework 
on the interplay among individuals, institutions, and historical trends. 
The book’s credibility is undermined by the rather friendly interest Sar- 
noff seems to have taken in its publication. My suspicions about the 
book’s reliability on certain points were confirmed when I was working 
through the extensive manuscript collection on radio’s history compiled 
over a fifty-year period by George H. Clark, who worked in the radio 
field from 1903 to 1946 and knew the history of radio intimately. Clark 
tore out pages of Archer’s book, stapled them to typing paper, and wrote 
comments such as “Lies!” in the margins. 

The most recent, and without doubt the finest, books on radio’s 
early technical history are Hugh G. J. Aitken’s Syntony and Spark and 
The Continuous Wave. Aitken’s books recount, among other things, the 
contributions of Marconi, De Forest, and Fessenden to radio’s develop- 
ment, and thus there is some overlap between his work and mine. Our 


• xx ■ 



Introduction 


approaches, however, are quite different. Aitken has focused on the 
intellectual history of the scientific and technical ideas that produced 
broadcasting and also, in The Continuous Wave, on the complicated 
behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the formation of RCA. My 
study goes into the technical history and the origins of RCA in less detail, 
and analyzes certain topics Aitken has not, such as how the press covered 
radio, the U.S. Navy’s early reaction to the invention, and the business 
history of the fledgling wireless industry. What links our work, and 
makes our studies complementary, is our shared interest in the 
emergence of ideas about what radio might be, the process by which 
these ideas took shape, and how these ideas evolved within the Ameri- 
can economic and social setting. 


BEFORE TURNING to the radio story, it is important to review the 
dominant institutional trends, individual aspirations, and journalistic 
practices this new invention would confront in 1899. The way radio 
was initially used and the manner in which it was portrayed reflected the 
larger economic and cultural transformations gripping the United States 
at the turn of the century. America was recovering from twenty-five 
tumultuous years marked by wild economic fluctuations and severe de- 
pressions, an unprecedented concentration of corporate wealth, labor 
unrest, and political turmoil. Social conflict — between the city and the 
country, nativists and immigrants, workers and managers, the wealthy 
and the poor — had heightened many Americans’ perception that with 
the rise of industrial capitalism they had lost control of their economy, 
traditions, and destiny. They were caught in an unsettling paradox. En- 
trepreneurs’ efforts to conquer the continent’s terrain and vast distances, 
most notably with the railroad and the telegraph, and thus better unify 
and coordinate the country, had along the way engendered economic 
chaos and regional strife. By 1894, when the depression and violent 
strikes were at their peak, marked by the hemorrhaging of both blood 
and gold, some writers and intellectuals consumed by “fin-de-siecle mel- 
ancholy” found escape in utopian or dystopian novels or in prolonged 
trips to Europe. Their malaise was deepened by a recognition that the 
sphere of their influence had been small when compared to that of the 
business community. 6 By 1899, the influence of the business community 
was steadily increasing as large corporate concentration became estab- 
lished as the dominant method of organizing the American economy. 

Radio would, as a result, enter an economic milieu in which large 
corporations, particularly those involved in transportation and commu- 


• xxi • 


Introduction 


nication, were becoming more powerful and more skillful at managing 
their interests. Business firms, determined to exert more control over 
market mechanisms, began coordinating their activities and strategies 
while reorganizing their internal structures along more efficient lines. 7 
Corporate consolidation increased; the merger movement reached its 
peak between 1898 and 1902. 8 The number of managers rose, too, and 
they worked in bureaucracies that valued a range of technical skills over 
family connections or regional ties. By hiring professionally trained en- 
gineers to fill many of these administrative slots, industrial concerns 
sought to extend the application of science and technology to managerial 
activities. 9 Recent historians have argued convincingly that organiza- 
tional and economic changes in the business community “had a more 
decisive influence upon our history than any other single factor.” 10 Cer- 
tainly the management and deployment of radio would be profoundly 
affected by this trend toward corporate centralization. 

The course of radio’s early development was also influenced by the 
professional aspirations and leisure activities of a subculture of middle- 
class men and boys, who found in technical tinkering a way to cope 
with the pressures of modernization. Success, survival even, for many 
of these men, required adjusting to the increasing bureaucratization of 
the workplace and fitting into hierarchical structures that often ignored 
or suppressed individual initiative. Conforming to these public roles 
sometimes engendered rebellion, albeit a necessarily circumscribed re- 
bellion, against regimentation and authority, and against loss of autono- 
my. The social reform movements, the rise of professional and trade 
organizations, and the emphasis on education, all attested to the deter- 
mination of middle-class Americans to regain what power they could 
within the constraints of the new, centralized bureaucratic setting. 
These people were seeking both more control and new bases of identifi- 
cation. 11 One such basis of identification was familiarity with mechan- 
ical and electrical apparatus. For certain upwardly mobile men, a sense 
of control came from mastering a particular technology rather than suc- 
cumbing to the routinization and de-skilling of the factory system. Tele- 
graph operators, for example, considered themselves to be members of 
a very distinctive, cohesive, and exclusive fraternity, because they had 
gained command of a technology and a code. Wireless telegraphy 
would also spawn such a subculture among middle-class boys and men 
seeking both technical mastery and contact with others in an in- 
creasingly depersonalized urban-industrial society. These men and boys 
were called amateur operators, and by 1910 they had established a 
grass-roots radio network in the United States. Their use of radio, 



Introduction 


which was oppositional to both corporate and government interests, 
played a major role in the emergence of broadcasting. 

The tensions among independent inventors, the amateur operators, 
and interested corporations over how radio fit into American society 
found expression and, at times, resolution in the pages of the popular 
press. By 1899, the press itself had become a major American institution. 
The growth of American newspapers and magazines had accompanied 
and, in some cases, outstripped the rise of other business firms. The 
formation of press associations and their intensified exploitation of the 
telegraph during the Civil War extended the “news net” and increased 
the speed of news gathering from more distant scenes. Competing pub- 
lishers’ determination to provide the most extensive coverage of the war 
brought about enlarged news organizations whose stories were critical 
to ordinary people with relatives directly involved in the fighting. As 
Michael Schudson has observed, “The war pushed the newspaper closer 
to the center of the national consciousness.” 12 The number of news- 
papers, their circulation, and the competition among them increased 
dramatically as their role in American society became more central. 
Americans, surrounded by rapid industrialization and the intemperance 
of an undisciplined capitalism, turned increasingly to the press for under- 
standing. Between 1870 and 1900, the number of daily newspapers in 
the United States quadrupled, and the number of copies sold each day 
increased nearly six times. 13 

These newspapers, the stories they printed, and the way they 
were managed, represented larger economic and cultural contradictions 
and embodied the clash between altruistic goals and the selfishness of 
the marketplace. Joseph Pulitzer, whose newspapers often contained 
high-minded crusades against the rich and powerful, himself amassed a 
twenty-million-dollar fortune, one of the largest ever accumulated in 
journalism. Many of his crusades, and those of other major journalists, 
advocated labor reform, yet newspapers regularly exploited their own 
workers. The press also campaigned against the “trusts,” yet news- 
papers devised monopolistic arrangements to control the gathering and 
reporting of news. 14 In the more dramatic confrontations between cap- 
ital and labor, such as the railroad strike of 1877, the press invariably 
sided with capital. 15 Some reporters and editors became cynical over 
what they saw as the hypocrisy of the press. Others, however, fused 
idealism and realism in their outlooks and their prose, and the fusion 
found a receptive audience, especially among the conflicted middle 
class, who did not always condone vast inequities in wealth or power, 
but who hardly wanted capitalism overthrown. 


• xxiii • 



Introduction 


The large newspaper’s paradoxical role — capitalist firm, built and 
dependent on technical advances, yet watchdog over the postwar indus- 
trial order — produced an ambivalence about industrialism reflected in its 
articles and headlines. The press straddled both the world of business and 
the arena of public perceptions. Newspapers and magazines were 
owned by men who vigorously took advantage of America’s economic 
system; yet to do so, they had to sell their articles and stories to people 
who often felt threatened by the vagaries and excesses of that system. 
Resolving this tension Americans felt about the human costs of the free 
enterprise system was what the press came increasingly to do. In its 
exposes, the press did not attack capitalism, the free market, or corpo- 
rate-government cooperation per se; rather, it attacked the excesses the 
system permitted. By railing against the more flagrant examples of politi- 
cal corruption, industrial exploitation, and mass poverty, newspapers 
and magazines helped define what constituted the acceptable range of 
responsible yet remunerative behavior. Its crusades against privilege on 
the one hand and working-class anarchy on the other cast the press as 
ally and protector of its middle-class readers. 16 Yet the values on which 
industrial enterprise had been built — rugged individualism, self-suffi- 
ciency, materialism, faith in technology, and belief in progress — were all 
still very much celebrated in journalistic prose. By reinforcing and recast- 
ing such values, which were in harmony with those of the middle class 
yet also legitimated the goals of the business community, the press 
adroitly blended tradition with new circumstances as it helped define an 
emerging corporate culture. It was in the pages of the press, then, that the 
tortuous process of accommodation between institutions and the indi- 
vidual, and between technology and culture, was played out most visi- 
bly and symbolically. 

The journalistic mold in which wireless telegraphy would be cast 
for the public, thus, was largely formed prior to 1899. Established con- 
ventions existed, too, for covering stories about technological change. 
One of the most durable and popular of these conventions was the in- 
ventor-hero. The late-nineteenth-century incarnation of the self-made 
man, the inventor-hero blended the traditional values of individualism, 
hard work, and self-denial with the newer realities of rapid technical 
change. 17 He was used to personify, and humanize, the rise of industriali- 
zation. 

Since the founding of the country, Americans had worked at recon- 
ciling the pastoral ideal with the need for technology, and by the 1840s 
some had become convinced that technological advances and social pro- 
gress were intertwined in an upward-moving spiral. 18 Others were not 


• XXIV • 



Introduction 


convinced. The robber barons confirmed what earlier doubters had pre- 
dicted: technology would corrupt those who controlled it and exploit 
those who didn’t. Obviously, the relationship between technology and 
culture was significantly more complicated than either view suggested, 
but the press disentangled the complexity, showing a gray skein for what 
it was: distinct threads of black and white. It wasn't that technology 
itself was either bad or good; what mattered was the kind of technology 
and who deployed it. Americans recognized that technological progress 
was fraught with good and evil, and the press made both their hopes and 
their fears more manageable by personifying this ambivalence. Jay 
Gould and Jim Fisk represented the worst sort of amorality and avarice 
that industrialization permitted, and people could castigate these men as 
villains, thus venting their fears about what technics was doing to civi- 
lization. 19 Men such as Samuel Morse, Thomas Edison, and Alexander 
Graham Bell provided reasons for celebration: they personified what 
was best about the American cult of invention. Although they certainly 
hoped their inventions would make them financially comfortable, these 
men had no plans, according to the press, which required the exploita- 
tion of other people. 

But there is another critical aspect of these inventors’ achievements 
which contributed to their popular success: they had harnessed elec- 
tricity. What could be more heroic, or romantic? People could grasp the 
building of a machine, but channeling this potentially wild and unpredict- 
able force seemed particularly miraculous. 20 In addition, the telegraph, 
phonograph, light bulb, and telephone brought widespread and visible 
improvements to the lives of many people, not just the rich and powerful. 
Electricity held a special place in the public’s imagination, and the men 
who laid claim to capturing it were obliged to translate it into beneficial, 
practical uses. 

The language used to celebrate inventor-heroes and to convey the 
wonder of electricity was flowery, naive, and inflated. It was, in a word, 
romantic. The romantic movement in literature, exemplified by the 
works of Emerson, Whitman, and Melville, had, by the 1890s, given way 
to realism and naturalism, which confronted directly the toll of industrial 
capitalism. So, in literature, romanticism was dead. But in the pages of 
the press, albeit in a bastardized form, it was alive and well. Heroes had 
free will and destinies; they conquered their surroundings and the doubts 
of other men. Instinct paid off. Introspection and action commingled in 
the hero’s spirit, serving together as catalysts for his achievement. There 
was a profound faith in technological and social progress, even in the face 
of depressing countervailing evidence. And there was a certain pan- 


• XXV ■ 



Introduction 


theism: nature was wondrous and filled with mysteries; it should be 
harnessed to do man’s bidding but not be destroyed. 

Romantic prose sold newspapers, especially when it was used in the 
service of sensationalism. It also helped journalists distinguish themselves 
and provided one of the few opportunities reporters had to be creative 
and individualistic. Most importantly, this romantic rhetoric, when ap- 
plied to stories about industrialism or technical change, mediated be- 
tween tradition and innovation. It made industrialism seem less like an 
impersonal, inexorable force and more like a trend guided by well- 
meaning men in control of history. An invention might be revolutionary 
and difficult to understand, but if it was described in familiar, even old- 
fashioned, phrases and embedded in a recognizable framework of val- 
ues, it was less remote and threatening. The language used to describe 
new inventions and the men who designed them was critical to the 
acceptance of technical change. Thus, using romantic prose when de- 
scribing the scientific and business goals of entrepreneurs helped legiti- 
mate the private, corporate control of machines as the only equitable and 
progressive method of management. 

The romantic picture of wireless painted in the popular press will be 
analyzed in the following pages to determine whose claims on the in- 
vention were legitimated and whose were not. It is reasonable to sus- 
pect that the press, an established communications business with a stake 
in any invention that might cheapen and quicken news gathering, might 
shape, both consciously and inadvertently, a new' communications tech- 
nology in its own image. Many members of the press, at least those not 
consumed by cynicism, liked to think of themselves as watchdogs over 
malfeasance, as educators, and as writers who liberated their readers 
from ignorance, boredom, isolation, and the oppressions of industrialism. 
Yet newspapers were also businesses, and none of these altruistic goals 
would be pursued if the economic cost became too great. Nor would the 
press’s goal of supporting social justice be pushed so far as to challenge the 
basic assumptions and underpinnings of American capitalism. I hope to 
illustrate the extent to which these twin desires to uplift mankind and yet 
to enjoy the benefits of capitalism got imprinted, with all their cultural 
contradictions, on the early development of radio. 

There was one other very important feature of the rapidly changing 
cultural landscape that remained a parallel but seemingly unconnected 
trend during radio’s early development. This was the rise of mass enter- 
tainment. The growth and increasing influence of the press was one part 
of this cultural transformation. The volume of mass-produced and widely 
distributed books and magazines had skyrocketed since the Civil War. 


• XXVI • 



Introduction 


The Nation noted in 1895 that magazines were being born “in numbers 
to make Malthus stare and gasp.” 21 Completely new genres of entertain- 
ment, such as the dime novel, the comic strip, and the amusement park, 
attracted millions of devotees. Advertising became more prominent and 
bold, relying on widely recognized cultural symbols and linking con- 
sumer goods to specific norms and values. At the turn of the century, 
vaudeville was the nation’s most popular form of entertainment in the 
public sphere. And moving pictures began to insinuate themselves first 
into urban working-class and immigrant neighborhoods and later into 
the world of the middle class. Increasingly, it was technology that 
brought entertainment, leisure, and escape. This new alliance between 
technology and entertainment was a marriage of profound economic and 
cultural significance, a marriage that would eventually produce radio as 
its most widely adopted offspring. 


THESE, THEN, WERE the larger institutional and cultural frameworks 
within which wireless telegraphy would become radio. All of the in- 
stitutions that molded radio’s development were themselves undergoing 
increased centralization and consolidation; they were also engaged in 
fierce struggles to control those inventions which would help them ex- 
tend the hegemony of their particular technological systems throughout 
the country. Radio was swept up in these struggles, its corporate and 
technical fate increasingly intertwined with those of major private and 
government institutions. But there was also an important and dynamic 
reciprocal influence between institutional strategies and individual ap- 
plications. Individual inventors interacted with corporations, the gov- 
ernment, and the press; amateur operators constructed their own sets of 
meanings around radio, meanings with which large institutions had to 
come to terms. The press often symbolically mediated these interactions, 
and in doing so gave voice to certain ideas and silenced others. 

It is important to remember that despite the weight and force of 
these processes within which the invention would develop, radio was 
not completely malleable. It had very particular attributes that made it 
difficult to control. It sent messages through space in all directions. It was 
not secret, or even private, and it was subject to interference. Access was 
at first unrestricted: anyone with inexpensive homemade apparatus 
could transmit and receive signals. Establishing financial and technical 
control over this invention proved problematical. And the invention 
introduced Americans to an unexplored, mysterious new environment, 
the electromagnetic spectrum, then known as the luminiferous ether. 


• XXVII ■ 



Introduction 


The ether was invisible, it was everywhere, and it seemed open to all. Its 
possibilities were still unknown. No known rules governed its use. As an 
uncharted frontier, it inspired fear, suspicion, and visions of transcen- 
dence and escape. Sending messages without wires was one revolution; 
coming to terms with this electromagnetic environment was another. 


THIS BOOK IS organized as follows. The opening chapter describes the 
invention’s scientific and technical origins, and its highly publicized debut 
in the American press. The second and third chapters recount the wire- 
less inventors’ early struggles to make wireless a viable business, and 
focus, in turn, on early technical developments and competition, and on 
the inventors’ varying entrepreneurial styles and management tech- 
niques. The fourth chapter describes the U.S. Navy’s reaction to the 
invention and international debates about its proper use. Chapter five 
explores how inventors managed technical change and business strategy 
between 1906 and 1911. The sixth chapter looks at individuals rather 
than institutions, and tells the story of the amateur wireless operators 
and their particular vision of how wireless might be used by Americans. 
Chapter seven describes the origins and impact of the first radio regula- 
tion in America. Chapter eight examines how World War I, which pro- 
foundly accelerated consolidation and centralization in both the public 
and the private sector, affected the management of radio technology in 
America. The book’s last chapter recounts the rise of broadcasting, and 
analyzes how the radio boom was interpreted in the press. 

All of these chapters explore the interactions among technology, 
business strategy, and the press. The concept of three arenas of thought 
and activity has helped me to organize and make sense of a large body of 
overlapping material. But I also hope that a discussion of what such 
arenas involved and how they interacted will help shed light on the 
process by which radio, an emerging technology, was socially con- 
structed in America. For if there is one major theme to the book, it is that 
technology is as much a process as a thing; it is an evolving relationship 
between people and their environment which is affected by more than 
one factor. 

As the invention evolved, its name changed as well: in 1899, it was 
the wireless telegraph; by 1920, it was known as radio. The transition 
occurred between 1906 and 1912, when wireless telegraphy gave way 
to radiotelegraphy and radiotelephony (transmission of the human voice 
as opposed to dots and dashes). We do not know who was the first to use 
the prefix radio; we only know it was considered more precise than 


■ xxviii ■ 



Introduction 


wireless because it indicated that the waves were radiated in all direc- 
tions. Gradually the prefix radio stood on its own, as the words radio- 
telegraphy and radiotelephony seemed too long and clumsy. Between 
1906 and 1920, the terms wireless telegraphy and radio were often used 
interchangeably; the word radio was more general, because sometimes 
it referred to the transmission of dots and dashes and other times to the 
transmission of the human voice. By 1920, radio broadcasting was popu- 
larly understood to be the transmission of voice and music without 
wires, and the term wireless telegraphy became obsolete in the United 
States. I have used wireless telegraphy in the early part of the book, radio 
toward the end, and have used the words interchangeably in the middle, 
to reflect contemporary usage. 

1 must add one final comment to this discussion of the social construc- 
tion of radio. It is important to point out that this was primarily a white, 
middle-class, male construction, a process from which most women and 
minorities were excluded. Several women who have been unfairly dis- 
missed or overlooked in other histories of broadcasting made crucial 
contributions to the invention’s development, and where possible I cor- 
rect the record. As we consider how meanings are constructed in our 
culture, and how those meanings interact with machines, we must never 
lose sight of whose meanings they are and of who had no voice in the 
process. 


■ XXIX ■ 




INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


Telegraphy without wires — how attractive it sounds. 

No more unsightly pole lines disfiguring the streets and highways, 
ornamented with the dangling skeletons of by-gone kites. 

No more perpetual excavation of the streets, to find room beneath 
their surfaces for additional circuits that cannot possibly be 
crowded on to the staggering lines that darken the sky 
with their sooty cobwebs. A little instrument that one can almost 
carry in the pocket, certainly in a microscopic grip, 
and if your correspondent be likewise equipped, you may 
arrest his attention and talk to him almost any time or place, 
with no intervening medium but the . . . ether. . . . Possible? 
Certainly. But will it pay? 

For this is the final criterion with which this utilitarian age tests 
all such propositions, and for the present under ordinary circumstances, 
the answer must be NO. 

Electrical World, June 10, 1899 




CHAPTER ONE 


MARCONI AND THE AMERICA’S CUP 

The Making of an Inventor-Hero 

1899 


THE ADULATION OF heroes and the excoriation of villains became a 
dominant feature of American journalism during the late nineteenth cen- 
tury, when many aspects of American life were in flux. As the society 
navigated, and sometimes drifted, toward new horizons, heroes served 
as fixed points during an uncharted voyage. White and black images of 
good and evil stood out against — and helped make sense of — the compli- 
cated and subtle processes of industrialization, urbanization, and cen- 
tralization which began accelerating in the 1870s. America’s ability to 
cope with great complexity has been accompanied, and probably 
strengthened, by a reassuring simplicity in idea and symbol. 

Hero worship and self-affirmation went hand in hand. When the 
press lionized a hero, it also flattered its readers and celebrated their 
aspirations and potential. The hero represented not only what was possi- 
ble in individuals, but also what was best and most promising in Ameri- 
can society. F. Scott Fitzgerald put it more eloquently when writing of 
Lindbergh’s achievement: “A young Minnesotan who seemed to have 
had nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a 
moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies 
and thought of their old best dreams.” 1 

The press relied on heroes most when a signal event dramatized and 
distilled the larger, more amorphous transformations taking place within 
society. The hero, by personifying the best of both the old and the new 
orders, served to “mediate polar tensions” in a culture. 2 Thus, heroes 
have often embodied both where America’s been and where it’s going. 
By examining their qualities, or those that have been accentuated, we 
can learn something from heroes about the values, dreams, and conceits 
of the past. 


• 3 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


No doubt the rise and increasing hegemony of institutions in Ameri- 
can life made the traditional myths of individualism, as apotheosized in 
the hero, all the more compelling. While writers such as Theodore Drei- 
ser, Stephen Crane, and William Dean Howells came to portray Ameri- 
cans as powerless atoms buffeted about by vast impersonal forces be- 
yond their control, the faith in individualism remained strong and vibrant 
in contemporary journalism and popular literature. Only the context of 
the myth was changing. In the late nineteenth century, the heroic indi- 
vidual triumphed more frequently in urban, rather than rural, surround- 
ings and was successful because he had either founded or worked his 
way up through a modem organization. Organizations did not yet sug- 
gest the futility of individual effort; they simply provided a new setting 
and a new set of challenges. 3 The new heroes were not the men who 
blazed trails westward or fought their own lonely battles. They were 
men who stood out in a bureaucratic setting that made their courage, 
decisiveness, or risk taking all the more glittering and exemplary. Or they 
were men who, having no such organizational framework, had the 
vision and audacity to create one. 

In late September of 1899, two such men, one already a hero, an- 
other about to become one, sailed into New York harbor. They could 
hardly have been more different. Yet they would be characterized in 
similar ways, often with the same adjectives and descriptive phrases, and 
would personify the bridge between the past and the future, the indi- 
vidual and the institution. Examining the way Admiral George Dewey 
and Guglielmo Marconi were treated by the press and the public reveals 
much about American culture at the turn of the century and suggests how 
contemporary journalism would respond to and shape a new commu- 
nications technology. 

America had gone for more than thirty years without a war hero, 
and even longer without one who could be cheered by the country as a 
whole. Admiral Dewey ended the drought. As commander of the U.S. 
Navy’s Asiatic Squadron in 1898, he destroyed Spain’s authority in the 
Philippines by sinking or incapacitating that country’s entire fleet in Ma- 
nila without losing one American life. 4 The victory, unbelievably swift 
and decisive, symbolized America’s increasing confidence and influence 
in world affairs. Although the short-lived Spanish-American War pro- 
duced other heroes, Dewey eclipsed them all. He had shown the world 
that the U.S. Navy, and the country it represented, was technically ad- 
vanced, united, and brash, and was rethinking its role and destiny. When 
Dewey sailed into New York City in September 1899, he was over- 
whelmed by a spectacular celebration in his honor. Theodore Roosevelt, 


■ 4 • 



Marconi and the America’s Cup 


governor of New York, declared a two-day holiday. Friday night “pyro- 
technics” were followed by a Saturday parade in which, it was esti- 
mated, more than thirty thousand people marched, cheered on by nearly 
a million spectators. The “admiral who had smashed an enemy’s fleet as 
an appetizer for breakfast” was greeted rapturously . 5 The New York 
newspapers announced Dewey’s homecoming in huge headlines com- 
plemented by large, lavish illustrations. The entire front sections of the 
papers, from four to eight pages, were devoted exclusively to the 
“Greatest Popular Demonstration of the Century for a Living Ameri- 
can .” 6 Popular magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Outlook, and Cen- 
tury Magazine featured cover stories, illustrations, editorials, and exten- 
sive articles on the hero’s return. They all agreed that the reception was 
unparalleled . 7 

The decorations in honor of the hero were extravagant. White, blue, 
and gold flags and buntings adorned much of the city. A series of ionic 
columns flanked the parade route for a mile and led to the day’s ultimate 
symbol, the Dewey Arch in Madison Square. The arch was one hundred 
feet high and was surmounted by and embellished with elaborate statues 
and depictions of military victories. Twenty gold-and-white “victory” 
statues lined the route north from the arch to Thirty-second Street. The 
columns, the arch, and the sculptings were modeled after monuments 
that had been erected for Roman triumphal processions. They were all 
temporary, designed and erected solely to honor Dewey, and so were 
made of wood and plaster of paris . 8 

The newspaper and magazine accounts of the parade showed how a 
press that had fostered the country’s entrance into the war would now 
both justify that participation and provide symbolic closure to the adven- 
ture. The emphasis was on how unified America was in its goals: no 
mention was made, on this occasion, of the very real divisions between 
the jingoists and the anti-expansionists. Embellishment of the facts was 
not uncommon in journalistic writing of the period, and facts sometimes 
became subservient to the requirements of drama and myth. At the hands 
of reporters and editors, Dewey became the stereotypical hero. At the 
same time that he exhibited greatness, he also “seem[ed] at times exactly 
like scores of other average men .” 9 He was certainly brave, daring, 
resilient, and decisive; but he was also cast as modest, considerate, 
egalitarian, devoted to duty, and concealing reservoirs of feeling under a 
usually reserved exterior . 10 His voice “shook with emotion,” reported 
the Herald, as he accepted a gold loving cup from the mayor of New 
York. Pointing to the men who had fought with him in Manila, Dewey 
announced “These are the men that did it. Without them I could not have 


• 5 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


done what I did.” 11 The men who served under him reciprocated, telling 
one reporter, “We would have sailed straight into hell after him.” 12 
Special attention was paid to his tact, diplomacy, and humanity. His 
personal humility and “gentleness” captured and reflected the cultural 
altruism many Americans believed had motivated their “liberation” of 
Cuba and the Philippines. 

In the eyes of the press, Dewey had struck the right balance be- 
tween caution and boldness, preparation and action; adherence to rou- 
tine had been complemented by deft improvisation. Dewey had obeyed 
orders and had given orders. He had inspired confidence in those above 
and below him in the navy. His success validated the efficiency and 
necessity of bureaucratic structures and resources while simultaneously 
affirming the individual’s potential to transcend organizational regimen- 
tation. His triumph must have given all those anonymous spectators 
heart: Dewey himself had been virtually unknown to the general public 
before 1898, and now he was “classed among the truly great Americans” 
of the nineteenth century. 13 He came from the ranks of the people; he 
was a follower and a leader; he was what they were. The admiral 
whose career spanned forty years of the nineteenth century had shown 
us how to step into the twentieth. He helped Americans understand their 
“new place in the world of the future.” 14 As portrayed in the press, his 
success validated the relevance of old values to new demands. 

The parade reflected, amplified, and consecrated many of the coun- 
try’s aspirations at the turn of the century. It was as much a celebration of 
how far America had come since the Civil War as it was a welcome for a 
war hero. Capping decades of political, economic, and ideological divi- 
sions, this highly self-serving war with Spain reaffirmed the country’s 
faith in democracy and provided a renewed sense of unity and ideologi- 
cal purpose. The war also demonstrated that the benefits of democracy 
could be brought about even more quickly and efficiently by a well- 
meaning application of technological might; in this case, America’s “New 
Navy.” The war with Spain seemed nothing less than a holy crusade, 
bringing technological and political enlightenment to the infidels. The 
success of the crusade smothered those recurring feelings of self-doubt, 
often given voice by American intellectuals and haughty foreigners, 
which asserted that America would never enjoy the respect and status of 
European countries. The second wave of immigration and the with- 
drawal of European investments in America during the 1890s contrib- 
uted to feelings of resentment and helplessness in the face of foreign 
influence. And the depression, which brought widespread misery and 
recurring labor unrest, had driven hope into hibernation. The parade, 


• 6 • 



Marconi and the America’s Cup 


then, was an expression of optimism, idealism, and self-congratulation. It 
was a “public act of regeneration,” a mass ritual in a mass society. 15 
Dewey, who had presided over a series of unpredictable, volatile con- 
frontations with Asians and Europeans, and had handled them decisively 
with confidence and equanimity, personified what many Americans had 
come to crave: a sense of unity of purpose, evidence that the United 
States had a special democratic mission in the world which it was pre- 
pared to act on, and a renewed faith that that mission could be realized 
through the application of American technology. Thus were the Dewey 
Day celebrations framed within the larger ideological nexus of the Amer- 
ican faith in progress, a faith that often served as America’s secularized 
religion. 

A conviction that technological and social progress were inter- 
twined in an ever-upward-moving spiral was especially prevalent in the 
press in 1899. One of the year’s biggest ongoing stories was the end of 
one century and the beginning of another, and journalists marvelled over 
the extent to which Americans had, in the preceding one hundred years, 
conquered distance, time, and uncertainty. Believers understood pro- 
gress to be that continuous advance through time of a civilization in a 
pattern of successively higher stages of development: an intellectual, 
cultural, technological, and moral ascent to the ever better. 16 Scientific 
American was convinced such an advance had occurred: it referred to 
the preceding one hundred years as “A Century of Progress in the United 
States.” A writer for Popular Science Monthly admitted that the “men of 
the nineteenth century . . . have not been slow to praise it.” 17 What they 
praised most were what was easiest to see and count, the innumerable 
advances in technology and science. The remarkable contrast between 
the slowness of transportation and communication in 1800 and the 
swiftness of 1900 especially excited writers, who wrote of the revolu- 
tions in these areas. “Mechanics, by its space-annihilating power,” ob- 
served a writer in Nature, “has reduced the surface of the planet to such 
an extent that the human race now possesses the advantage of dwelling, 
as it were, on a tiny satellite.” 18 

The inflated language used to praise American progress revealed an 
intermingling of hubris and doubt as men celebrated their technical mas- 
tery. Scientific American gave voice to technological determinism when 
it observed that “the railroad, the telegraph, and the steam vessel annihi- 
lated distance.” There was an uneasiness in this observation, however: 
“Peoples touched elbows across the seas; and the contagion of thought 
stimulated the ferment of civilization until the whole world broke out 
into an epidemic of industrial progress.” 19 The disease metaphor, inter- 


• 7 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


mixed as it was with words like civilization and progress, reflected an 
ambivalence about the relationship between men and machines and an 
uncertainty about man’s ability to manage industrialism. Other meta- 
phors, however, decidedly masculine in their attitudes toward tech- 
nology and nature, assured men that they were very much in control. 
One passage in Popular Science Monthly, for example, described nature 
as a fecund seductress whom men had to subdue: “It seems impossible 
that Nature, now that we have discovered the true method of interrogat- 
ing her, should not go on revealing herself to us with greater and greater 
fullness.” With nature supine, “the scientific movement,” the province of 
men, was “at its maximum of vigor and productiveness.” 20 With nature 
cast as female, and science and technology as male, progress was natu- 
ralized as part of the broader scheme of things, in which men and ma- 
chines conquered, and women and nature acquiesced. In the journalistic 
elaborations on progress, such explicit masculine conceits commingled 
with the more implicit fear that technology, like women and nature, 
might elude male control. 

Dewey’s conquest affirmed the primacy of male control. The cele- 
brations insisted that noble, selfless heroes could harness technology and, 
through it, promote political and social justice. The parade, the neo- 
classical decorations, and the journalistic fanfare cast military conquest 
and American expansionism as altruistic gestures, designed first and fore- 
most to liberate the oppressed. In October of 1899, the New York news- 
papers and northeastern magazines held up a most flattering mirror to 
their readers. Like Dewey, Americans were brave and selfless; their 
mission was to spread democracy around the world; and technological 
and social progress were inevitable in the United States. Modern con- 
quests made possible by modern machines in the end reaffirmed and 
spread traditional values. 

This was how the press constructed the significance of Dewey’s 
heroism. For the twenty-five-year-old, half-Italian, half-Irish inventor 
who had arrived in New York five days before Dewey, this was the 
prevailing ideological framework within which he would have to oper- 
ate. If he could convince the press that he was selfless and that his 
invention would well serve free enterprise, democracy, and altruism, 
then he, too, would have a victory in the journalistic arena. 

Guglielmo Marconi was already assured press coverage. James Gor- 
don Bennett, the notorious publisher of the New York Herald and an avid 
yachtsman, took particular interest in the Dublin Daily Express’s cover- 
age of the Kingstown Regatta in 1898. Marconi had reported the progress 
of the race by his new method of communication, wireless telegraphy. 


• 8 • 



Marconi and the America’s Cup 


Early in 1899, Bennett offered and Marconi accepted, five thousand dol- 
lars to cover the America’s Cup Yacht Races for the Herald. 21 

Bennett’s talent for making news happen was legendary. It had been 
his idea, for example, to send Stanley to Africa to find Livingstone. 
Bennett and his father had been the first to report about and promote the 
potential of other inventions, including Morse’s telegraph and Edison’s 
light bulb. In the late 1830s, James Gordon Bennett, Sr., had pioneered 
the use of dispatch boats to intercept ships bringing news from Europe 
and then deliver the news to the Herald offices hours before the steamers 
docked. His son established the Commercial Cable Company to expedite 
transatlantic communication. Competition over speedy news gathering 
and dissemination had prompted the Herald and many other penny press 
newspapers to encourage and exploit a series of technical advances in 
printing and communications. 22 

To Bennett, wireless telegraphy promised to be another such invalu- 
able innovation. For, although a revolution had taken place in transporta- 
tion and in communications, a technical and commercial gap existed; the 
two revolutions had not converged. When moving so quickly from one 
place to another, travelers were incommunicado. Transatlantic pas- 
sengers heard no news of the world for however long they were at sea; 
if their ship foundered, they had no modern way to signal for help. While 
at sea, they were isolated from the communications networks. The sup- 
posedly modern navies of the world, which strutted their new ironclad 
warships, still used antiquated methods such as homing pigeons and flags 
for communication and tactical signaling. The news of Dewey’s victory, 
for example, had taken a week to travel from the Philippines, via ship 
and cable, to the United States. Off-shore islands too small to justify a 
cable, or separated by a channel too shallow to accommodate one, trans- 
mitted and received information by mail and messenger. Basically, 
where lines or cable connections could not go, there was no communica- 
tion, even at the close of the “Century of Progress.” Marconi proposed 
bridging this gap by sending the Morse Code through the air, without 
using any tangible connections at all. 

The timing of Marconi’s demonstration could hardly have been bet- 
ter. Dewey’s parade took place on Saturday, September 30, and the 
festivities overflowed into the following day. The yacht races began on 
Wednesday, October 3. In New York, the week seemed to be one contin- 
uous holiday. The Herald summarized the week’s events: “Dewey has 
had his day, or rather week. Now for the Yacht Race.” 23 While the 
admiral’s triumphant return may have been a tough act for a young, 
relatively unknown foreigner to follow, it also helped set the mood and 


■ 9 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


evoke the optimism, awe, and faith in progress necessary for an enthusi- 
astic reception of the new invention. The success in international com- 
petitions which Dewey’s parade had honored fueled the already keen 
interest in the competition between America’s Columbia and Ireland’s 
Shamrock. The Herald promoted the use of wireless during the races as 
“a feat unparalleled in the history of journalism.” The paper also empha- 
sized the democratic benefits of the invention: “The Herald will thus 
prove a boon not only to science but to millions of persons who await 
with eagerness the result of a contest that has excited more interest than 
any in the history of the America’s Cup.” 24 The setting was dramatic and 
highly charged, guaranteeing Marconi and his invention excellent 
exposure. 


ALTHOUGH THE PAPERS did not explicitly ask the question, reporters 
and readers alike may have wondered why the country that had pro- 
duced Morse, Edison, and Bell now watched a foreigner introducing the 
latest advance in electrical communications. How did Guglielmo Mar- 
coni come to be the “inventor” of wireless telegraphy? What scientific 
and technical sources did he build on, and which ones did he inadver- 
tently, or judiciously, neglect? 

When Marconi introduced his invention to the British in 1896, many 
members of the academic and technical communities dismissed the appa- 
ratus as highly derivative: “The present subject is not new. It has oc- 
cupied the attention of inventors for at least fifty years.” 25 While this 
assessment was too broad and sweeping, Marconi’s wireless, like most 
inventions, was certainly a hybrid, its lineage a combination of the- 
oretical physics, laboratory experimentation, and seat-of-the-pants test- 
ing and tinkering. 

The concept of transmitting signals through space without wires had 
intrigued scientists and inventors for decades. The earliest experiments 
used electrical induction or conduction to transmit signals without wires. 
The two men who stimulated practical investigations into transmitting 
signals without wires were Joseph Henry of the United States and 
Michael Faraday of England. Both were interested in the relationship 
between electricity and magnetism, and in the late 1820s and early 
1830s, each discovered electromagnetic induction. Faraday published his 
results first, and thus generally received credit for the discovery. What 
both men observed was that when a magnet was placed near a conduct- 
ing circuit and was then rotated or moved, the changing magnetic held 
induced a current in the circuit. If the magnet remained stationary, the 


■ 10 ■ 



Marconi and the America’s Cup 


magnetic field was constant and there was no effect on the conductor. 
Faraday then discovered that in an arrangement of two separate and 
unconnected wires, a change in the current in the first wire would induce 
a momentary current in the second wire. The only connection between 
the two wires was space. Again, change was central to obtaining results: 
a constant current in one wire did not induce a current in the second. 
Thus, any change in the lines of magnetic force, whether produced by a 
magnet moving relative to a wire, or by a change in the current passing 
through a wire, would induce a current in an independent, physically 
unconnected wire. 26 

In 1838, shortly after Faraday’s and Henry’s experiments, telegraph 
engineers observed a related phenomenon: conduction transmission. 
They discovered that two wires were not necessary to complete a cir- 
cuit: one wire could be eliminated and the return made through the 
ground. As news of these discoveries traveled via the scientific and tech- 
nical journals, experimenters became excited by the practical pos- 
sibilities. The Morse Code was transmitted by opening and closing a 
circuit at different intervals. This on/off operation caused a change in 
current and could be expected to induce messages in similar circuits not 
connected by wires, thus achieving wireless telegraphy. Also, water 
was a conductor. Couldn’t experimenters exploit its conductive proper- 
ties to transmit telegraphic signals? 

By the 1840s, in both Europe and America, people began exploring 
the possibilities of using induction and conduction to signal without con- 
necting wires. 27 One standard experiment involved running two parallel 
wires along the opposite banks of a river or other body of water, with no 
connection between the two wires except that provided by the water. 
This method of signaling came to be known as subaqueous telegraphy. 
When the circuit was closed on one side of the river, the parallel circuit on 
the opposite side would register the transfer of energy. A similar test 
consisted of elevating the parallel wires and transmitting the signals by 
induction. But wireless telegraphy by induction was severely limited by 
one crucial drawback: the greatest transmission distance achieved was a 
mile or two. Beyond this distance, induction was too weak to be useful 
for signaling. So, despite the initial optimism generated when signals 
were received across a canal or pond, this method of wireless commu- 
nication hit a technical dead end. Additional scientific knowledge was 
essential if progress was going to be made. The theoretical and empirical 
work that led wireless communication out of this cul-de-sac was accom- 
plished by two university-trained European scientists, James Clerk Max- 
well and Heinrich Hertz. 


• 11 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


In 1865, Maxwell published his “Dynamical Theory of the Electro- 
Magnetic Field,” which became inspirational to those experimenting in 
wireless transmission. Like other European physicists in the mid- and 
late nineteenth century, Maxwell was searching for unifying principles 
that would link and better explain various related phenomena. This 
trend toward synthesis prompted scientists to consider less how forces 
were different and more how they were similar. Maxwell also helped to 
establish the importance of electricity to the study of physics. 28 

In “Dynamical Theory,” Maxwell maintained that accelerated 
changes in electric and magnetic forces sent waves spreading through 
space at a definite speed. An electric spark could provide such a necessary 
quick change in current. He asserted that light, rather than consisting of 
material particles, was one type of electromagnetic wave, and he sug- 
gested that other forms of waves could very well exist, even though they 
were invisible to the human eye. Maxwell determined the speed of the 
electromagnetic waves to be exactly the speed of light: 186,000 miles per 
second. What differentiated these waves, then, was not speed but the 
number of waves radiated per second. 

One important aspect of Maxwell’s theory that sometimes is not 
mentioned in radio histories perpetuated the concept of the ether as the 
environment in which these waves supposedly traveled. For Maxwell, 
implicit in his notion of the similar properties of different types of waves 
was the belief in a single medium that transmitted all these forces. How 
could there be waves — crests and troughs — without an environment, in 
nothingness? Some earlier theorists had believed that each force — grav- 
ity, electricity, light, magnetism — had its own special medium of trans- 
mittal. Maxwell brought unity to these concepts and endorsed the notion 
of the single medium, the ether, and when his equations predicting elec- 
tromagnetic action were demonstrated so conclusively in experiments 
by Hertz and others, it was assumed that his theory about the ether had 
to be correct, as well. Implicit in Maxwell’s treatise was the possibility of 
producing, detecting, and timing the waves he described. But Maxwell’s 
revolutionary theory was to remain untested for nearly twenty-five 
years. 

By the time Maxwell’s work was published, the British and German 
scientific communities had become more closely allied, and the resulting 
dialogue benefited the advance of physics in both countries. This in- 
creased exchange occurred simultaneously with the rise of the university 
system in Germany, in which organized scientific research began to flour- 
ish in lavish, newly built laboratories. Hermann von Helmholtz was at 
this time one of Germany’s foremost scientists and an active member of 


■ 12 • 



Marconi and the America’s Cup 


the British-German scientific community. In 1870 he assumed the pres- 
tigious chair of physics at Berlin and began challenging his colleagues to 
study and assess Maxwell’s theory. 29 In 1878 he acquired a brilliant 
student, Heinrich Rudolph Hertz, who for the next five years would 
serve as Helmholtz’s pupil and assistant. Although Helmholtz asked 
Hertz to test Maxwell’s theories in 1879, Hertz did not begin his land- 
mark experiments until seven years later. After two years of work, Hertz 
succeeded in 1888 in producing and detecting the waves Maxwell had 
described. He established, as predicted, that these electromagnetic 
waves moved at the same speed as light. 

Hertz had to devise ways both to generate and to detect these 
waves. 30 Because the waves were the result of a rapid change in electric 
current, Hertz had to produce electrical oscillations, or high-frequency 
alternating current. Scientists knew that electrical oscillations could be 
produced by the discharge of a Leyden jar, and that was where Hertz 
began. He connected the jar to an induction coil, which consisted of a 
primary winding with a few turns of wire which induced a higher 
voltage in a second coil having a larger number of turns and called the 
secondary. The electricity passed from the induction coil up through rods 
on each end, to which were attached perpendicular brass rods. On the 
outside ends of the rods were attached metal plates or spheres, and on the 
inside ends of each rod was a hollow metal ball a few inches in diameter. 
The space between these two metal balls, just small enough to create an 
air gap, was called the spark gap. The Leyden jar stored the electric 
charge, the induction coil magnified it, and the spark gap and metal plates 
radiated it out into the ether. This forerunner of the transmitter generated 
a high-voltage alternating current that surged back and forth between 
the metal balls and produced “electric waves which go out into space in 
the form of ever-increasing spheres.” 31 Standing several feet away and 
using a detecting loop of wire, each end of which was capped with small 
metal balls, Hertz “received” sparks that could be seen in the dark, 
demonstrating the transfer of energy which Maxwell had predicted. 

Hertz’s success was widely publicized and prompted many scien- 
tists to pursue research on electromagnetic radiation. But in the develop- 
ment of wireless telegraphy, the next important improvement was in the 
detector. Hertz’s small loop of wire was very crude and could only detect 
the waves at short distances. The receiver that became incorporated in 
early wireless apparatus was Oliver Lodge’s coherer, added to the sys- 
tem in 1894. 32 Lodge, a British physicist at the University of Liverpool, 
also had been working toward verifying Maxwell’s theories, but he was 
beaten to the proof by Hertz. His coherer was based on Edouard Branly’s 


■ 13 • 


INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


observation, published in 1890, that no matter how good a conductor a 
metal might be in bulk, if finely shaved into bits, its resistance was very 
great, indeed. 33 Branly’s coherer was a six-inch-long glass tube filled 
with iron filings; the filings’ resistance decreased remarkably with the 
impact of radiated electric waves. Their high resistance was restored, 
however, if the coherer was jarred or tapped. In his 1894 lecture to the 
Royal Institution titled “The Work of Hertz,” Lodge demonstrated his 
improved coherer and showed how it could be used as a detector of 
Hertzian waves. He included a “trembler” or decoherer, which mechan- 
ically shook the filings to restore their high resistance. His coherer was 
more sensitive than Hertz’s loop and allowed for the detection of wire- 
less waves at greater distances. 

Such was the state of the art in 1894. The dramatic scientific progress 
that had occurred since 1888 had been made possible by the vitality of 
and communication within the increasingly well-organized European 
physics community. America had only recently begun to establish signifi- 
cant university resources for the study of physics, and the nation’s geo- 
graphical isolation worked against comparable intercountry sharing of 
ideas. Europe enjoyed distinct advantages in elaborating the theoretical 
foundations and extending the demonstrations of transmitting electrical 
impulses without wires. Interest in electromagnetic radiation and detec- 
tion of Hertzian waves remained keen, and experimentation in several 
countries continued. But the insulated university network that had so 
advanced the art also displayed little interest in transforming Hertz’s 
experiments into a commercial venture. In fact, such an effort would 
have seemed vulgar to many academics. Thus, at the close of the century, 
a scientific reservoir was available for tapping, and a gap in the commu- 
nications network awaited filling. The missing component was an en- 
trepreneur bright enough, shrewd enough, and persistent enough to 
establish bridges between the realms of science, commerce, and popular 
imagination. That man was Guglielmo Marconi. 

The very formative experiences that might have subverted Mar- 
coni’s technical and entrepreneurial goals actually helped the inventor 
achieve them. 34 Although Marconi’s father was a landed proprietor who 
managed a large estate just outside of Bologna, Marconi had shown little 
interest in or talent for assisting with the daily administrative duties. He 
and his father were rarely on good terms, so entrepreneurial skills would 
not be developed through an active apprenticeship. His mother, Annie 
Jameson, with whom Marconi was very close, was of the well-to-do and 
well-connected Scotch-Irish Jameson family of brewers and distillers. 
So, despite his lack of specific, directed training, he came from a family 


• 14 ■ 



Marconi and the America’s Cup 


with a decidedly commercial orientation, an orientation that had not, as 
yet, channeled him into a particular vocation but that would imbue his 
approach to experimentation. 

Marconi’s education was informal and haphazard until he entered 
the Technical Institute in Leghorn at the age of thirteen. Throughout his 
youth, he had tinkered with machinery and elfectrical apparatus and 
conducted his own experiments based on the work of Faraday and 
Franklin. When he began studying physics at the institute, Marconi was 
so excited by the subject that his mother hired private tutors to reinforce 
his classroom studies. While at Leghorn, Marconi met and became friends 
with a retired telegraphist who taught the teenager the Morse Code. 
When Marconi returned to Bologna in 1893, Annie Jameson prevailed 
upon Auguste Righi, the noted professor of physics at the University of 
Bologna, to allow her son to audit Righi’s classes. The fact that the 
Marconis were Righi’s neighbors appears to have been more persuasive 
than any confidence the professor had in the young man’s potential. Righi 
also arranged for Marconi to obtain library privileges and allowed him to 
experiment in the laboratories. 

According to Marconi’s daughter, Righi was an indifferent and 
sometimes unencouraging mentor. Yet Righi provided a crucial link in 
Marconi’s development. Trained in mathematics and physics, Righi had 
been devoting much energy to applied research, and his work served as 
an example of how such experimentation was conducted. 35 Through his 
lectures and his lab work, he distilled for Marconi the work of Maxwell, 
von Helmholtz, and Hertz. Thus he made accessible to an otherwise 
untrained and spottily educated student the major theoretical and em- 
pirical foundations of wave propagation. He helped make Marconi privy 
to knowledge and a tradition that was rarely accessible to those outside 
the university system. Like most creative people, Marconi needed both 
skepticism and encouragement to challenge and sustain him as he 
worked. Righi provided the raised eyebrows, the doubt, that spurred 
Marconi on. 

Encouragement and conviction came from Annie Jameson. The role 
of this highly determined woman in contributing to the development of 
wireless has too frequently been underemphasized. While Marconi’s 
father complained about his son’s worthless tinkering, his mother nur- 
tured him at every stage of his development, often at the cost of harmo- 
nious relations with her husband. 36 She helped Marconi set up his lab at 
home, provided him with as much scientific and technical education as 
she could, discussed his progress with him, and witnessed his first dem- 
onstrations. She also provided him with another invaluable advantage: 


• 15 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


she insisted that he read, write, and speak English fluently. Without this 
skill, and all the other support from his mother, Marconi would not have 
achieved the success he did in both England and the United Stales. 

Marconi’s vision for wireless was grand and singular. He was not 
experimenting with the lecture hall in mind, and he was not interested in 
writing scholarly articles or in dazzling students or other audiences by 
producing sparks in the dark. He sought to take wireless transmission out 
of the university lab and employ it in a practicable, commercially suc- 
cessful system of communication: he meant to have the thing pay. To 
make it pay, the transmission distance had to be measured not in feet, but 
in miles. 

Through a painstaking process of trial and error (which would char- 
acterize his life’s work), Marconi improved upon the apparatus of Hertz, 
Righi, and Lodge. He began in his family’s attic, duplicating Hertz’s trans- 
missions of a few yards, detecting the feeble sparks with a small metal 
loop. He adopted Righi’s spark gap, which consisted of four metal 
spheres, and increased their size, which gave him greater transmission 
distance. He then incorporated his own coherer, which was a refinement 
of Lodge’s glass tube. Coupled with the coherer was his decoherer, a 
small electric hammer for tapping the filings back to their nonconducting 
condition . 37 After making these refinements, Marconi introduced the 
two components that would transport the system from the laboratory to 
the commercial world: the Morse Key/Recorder and the earthed aerial. 
As legend has it, the key entered by design, the earthed aerial by acci- 
dent. 

It was when Marconi was experimenting with the metal plates that 
were connected to each outside end of the spark gap that he made one of 
his most important discoveries. He had hoped that by replacing Hertz’s 
small plates with larger slabs of sheet iron and elevating them above the 
ground, he would obtain longer waves and greater distance. What hap- 
pened was that when he temporarily placed one of the slabs on the 
ground while holding the other slab up in the air, he noticed a consider- 
able increase in the strength of the received signal. This observation led to 
his famous innovation of including in both the transmitter and the receiv- 
er a connection to earth as well as a vertical conductor or aerial . 38 

With his new aerial design, Marconi was able to signal over hills and 
achieve a transmitting distance of three miles on his father’s estate. With 
the Morse Key, he transmitted dots and dashes. At this stage of develop- 
ment, telegraphy without wires was a rather straightforward operation. 
When the Morse Key was closed, either by a quick touch for a dot or a 
slight longer touch for a dash, the current passed from the batteries and 


■ 16 • 



Marconi and the America’s Cup 


through the thick wire wrapped around the sparking coil. This primary 
winding induced a current in the secondary, and the current rushed to the 
solid brass spheres. From the spark gap, “bluish tinted sparks” flashed, 
sending out intermittent electrical oscillations detected by the coherer. 39 
Marconi had a Morse inker connected to the coherer: the signals were 
recorded on tape, not listened for by an operator. 

Annie Jameson, convinced of the potential of her son’s achievement, 
began to seek customers. She discussed the invention with representa- 
tives of the Italian Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs, who saw in wireless 
no advantage over the telegraph and offered Marconi no support. Had the 
family approached the Italian Navy, they might have received more 
encouragement. But Marconi’s mother would not wait for the Italians to 
recognize the merits of wireless; in February 1896, she took her son to 
England, where her family connections were excellent and where in- 
terest in improving maritime communications would no doubt be keen. 

Marconi and the Jameson family spent the next year and a half 
patenting his apparatus; demonstrating it before government officials, the 
press, and the public; and exploring various sources of financial support. 
William Preece, who had himself been experimenting with electrical 
transfers by induction, was engineer-in-chief of the British Post Office, 
and he tried in vain to arrange a speedy takeover by the government of 
wireless; this arrangement would have provided Marconi with facilities 
and a salary in exchange for his inventions. Preece did offer the inventor 
£10,000 for his original patent, a sum too small to lure Marconi away 
from his cousin Jameson-Davis’s suggestion that the family form its own 
company. Jameson-Davis arranged for the financial backing, and on July 
20, 1897, Marconi and his associates incorporated the Wireless Telegraph 
and Signal Company Limited with a capital of £100,000. At first Marconi 
requested that his name be excluded from the title, but in 1900 the name 
was changed to Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company, Ltd. The com- 
pany was to acquire Marconi patents throughout the world. To the com- 
pany Marconi transferred all except the Italian rights to his patents, 
receiving in turn £15,000 in cash plus £60,000 in paid-up shares and a 
contract employing him as chief engineer at £500 a year. 40 Wireless 
signaling had made the transfer from the scientific-academic sector to the 
marketplace. 

With the possibility of government support for wireless eliminated, 
Marconi had to popularize the invention on his own and demonstrate its 
advantages dramatically and directly to the public. One of his earliest 
publicity stunts was establishing a wireless link between Queen Vic- 
toria’s Isle of Wight residence and the Royal Yacht lying nearby, off 


■ 17 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


Cowes. Wireless provided the queen with regular bulletins on the health 
of the Prince of Wales, who was recovering from a fall. 41 By 1899, 
Marconi had established a link between the East Goodwin light vessel 
and the South Foreland lighthouse, a distance of twelve miles. On March 
3, when a ship ran aground on the Goodwin Sands, signals of distress 
were relayed from the Goodwin light vessel to the lighthouse, which 
immediately dispatched lifeboats to the area, saving the passengers and 
the cargo. After this success, many coastal towns began pressing for 
wireless installations between all lightships and the shore. 42 On March 
28, 1899, Marconi successfully linked opposite shores of the English 
Channel, sending a message in Morse Code over the thirty-two miles 



Replica of Marconi’s early wireless apparatus, with spark gap at left, 
sending key at right, and metal plate for “directing” the waves. 



Marconi and the America’s Cup 


separating England and France. The message was reported to be as dis- 
tinct as a telegram. 43 

With each successive set of tests, Marconi extended his transmission 
distance and quickly reported the increase to the newspapers. Both early 
on and throughout his career, Marconi demonstrated an enviable flair for 
promotion. He always struck the right balance, obtaining maximum 
publicity without overstating his case. The best evidence of this talent 
was the way this Irish-Italian, coming to America when chauvinism was 
at its peak and many Italians were eyed with suspicion, captured the 
hearts and minds of the American press and, thus, those of the American 
public. 


ON SUNDAY, OCTOBER 1, the Herald announced in bold headlines: 
“Marconi Will Report the Yacht Races by His Wireless System.” The story 
included illustrations of the apparatus, the race course, and the inventor, 
and assured its readers that wireless telegraphy was “no longer the 
dream of the scientist but an accomplished fact.” 44 Two steamships, the 
Ponce and the Grande Duchesse, would be equipped with wireless and 
would relay the progress of the race to stations set up at the Navesink 
Highlands and Thirty-fourth Street in New York. Waiting reporters 
would send the news across the country and the Atlantic by telegraph 
and cable, and would post up-to-the-minute reports on bulletin boards in 
the city. During the last yacht races, the Mackay-Bennett had transmitted 
the news to shore through a submarine cable, but this time would be 
different: the messages would “come rushing through the air with the 
simplicity of light.” 45 

The yacht races were almost as much of a spectacle as Dewey’s 
parade. Thousands of people crowded onto excursion boats to follow the 
Columbia and the Shamrock. Thousands more lined the coast, or formed 
traffic-blocking crowds near the Herald building’s bulletin board. This 
first attempt to use radio to transmit news in America had a sizable and 
eager audience. 

On October 4, the first day of the races, the Herald boasted: “Mar- 
coni’s Wireless Telegraph Triumphs” and “Wireless Bulletins Worked 
Like Magic.” “By flashing his despatches from the steamship Ponce,” the 
Herald enthused, “Signor Marconi enabled the public to follow every 
movement of the yachts from the start. ... As messages came from 
Signor Marconi . . . and were placed on bulletin board, there were loud 
hurrahs.” Aboard the Ponce, “more attention was given to the myste- 
rious chart room and to Signor Marconi than to the yachts.” 46 The speed 


• 19 • 


INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


with which the messages were received was particularly thrilling to 
Americans. Marconi later recalled that “what impressed the public most 
was the extraordinary rapidity of the system. Wherever the Marconi 
bulletins, as they were called, were posted all over the city, the public 
was less than seventy-five seconds behind the yachts and in many cases 
less than thirty seconds.” 47 Even the other newspapers had to acknowl- 
edge Bennett’s coup, because wireless was a new invention attracting 
strong public interest and Marconi was clearly a man to be reckoned 
with. Marconi’s success became front-page news across the nation. 

Within days the image makers were at work. By October 6, Marconi 
had been labeled a public benefactor. A rumor had spread the fear that 
the Grand Republic, one of the excursion boats, had sunk. But Marconi 
sent a wireless report denying the story and thereby saved “thousands 
from hours of anxiety.” 48 His own charm and skill, the nature of his 
invention, and the press’s hunger for the good copy inventors made, all 
interacted to place Marconi in the pantheon of inventor-heroes. 

Whether Dewey’s publicity served as a primer for Marconi on how 
to win over reporters remains unknown, but Marconi equaled the Admi- 
ral in his dealings with the press, and developed a public persona news- 
papers couldn’t resist. He, too, was repeatedly described as being modest 
about his accomplishments and was praised for being quick to enumerate 
the contributions of his predecessors. 49 He was cautious in his statements 
about the progress of his work, and was flamboyant only in his achieve- 
ments, not in his manner. Although his invention was described as a 
miracle, he did not boast; in fact, it was observed that he was “not a 
talkative man.” 50 He was consistently described as reserved, courteous, 
even self-effacing. The New York Times stated that Marconi’s modesty 
approached diffidence and related that he had concluded one address “by 
saying that he had only builded upon the discoveries of other scientists, 
and gave a list of names of the men who had helped him the most.” The 
paper affirmed its belief that Marconi could “subordinate all professional 
jealousies and rivalries to the truth.” 51 His invention, the Times declared, 
was the result of arduous labor and ingenuity, two characteristics long 
considered essential to the self-made man. 52 Marconi succeeded in com- 
ing across as confident yet modest. Despite what he might have said 
privately or in his patent applications, when speaking to the press or 
delivering an address, Marconi conscientiously expressed his indebted- 
ness to earlier workers in the field. He flattered his listeners by express- 
ing his admiration for America, which he claimed was much more sup- 
portive of inventors than was England. 53 

Marconi remembered the initial discontinuity between what he 


■ 20 • 




Marconi and the America's Cup 


THE NEW YORK HERALD. 


► oi htii 'trims 


marconi will report 

THE YACHT PACES 
COR THE HERALD ■* « 
WIRELESS SYSTEM 


complete pi tails or tiii 

MAIAni OII.S INVENTION iW 
\VI lie 1 1 \'I!WS IS REM 1RTED 
rulin' MllJtS AWAY 
Will IOUTTHEIISE 

or wipes. 


IXPIIUW EXPLANATION 
or MARCONI'S METHOD 


KMi 










INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


was and what reporters expected him to be: “For some reason or other it 
seemed to come rather as a shock to the newspapers that I spoke English 
fluently, in fact, ‘with quite a London accent,’ as one paper phrased it and 
also that I appeared to be very young and did not in the slightest resemble 
the popular type associated with an ‘inventor’ in those days in America, 
that is to say a rather wild-haired and eccentrically costumed person .” 54 
The New York Tribune tried to fit Marconi into this mold anyway. The 
paper assured its readers that the slight young man had a light complex- 
ion and clear blue eyes and, but for a small mustache, was clean shaven. 
However, the story also noted that Marconi possessed a “nervous tem- 
perament” and was somewhat absent-minded, evidently being “more 
concerned about his scientific studies and inventions than about conven- 
tionalities and dress .” 55 This characterization did not stick, because Mar- 
coni successfully defied it. Marconi was well aware of the handicaps 
stereotypes exerted, especially those of age and race, and he sought to 
avoid them through polished manners and elegant dress . 56 

While he may not' have looked much like an eccentric scientist, 
Marconi told reporters what they wanted to hear and print, and thus 
conformed to the inventor-hero model in other ways. He was not a 
university-trained theoretician but an experimenter who, by working 
with his hands — another attribute Americans respected — had accom- 
plished what the professors had not. As Electrical World noted in an 
editorial praising Marconi, “All the world admires a savant, but it will 
accept a man of only moderate learning if he will create from the rem- 
nants of knowledge something for the immediate good of humanity .” 57 
Scientists were remote to Americans; experimenters were not. Marconi 
was shrewd enough to play down the theoretical knowledge he had 
acquired. He emphasized instead how he proposed to integrate wireless 
quickly into commerce and diplomacy. Electrical World stated that Mar- 
coni was a “true inventor” because he concerned himself “very little 
with the theory of wireless telegraphy” and instead “confined his work 
to experimental changes .” 58 Ultimately, the American people did not 
care who thought of something first; they cared who made it work. And 
Marconi made wireless work. 

Marconi’s demonstration of wireless also fit into the journalistic bias 
toward technological display . 59 Unveilings of inventions that took place 
during major public events and that involved risk, because the news of 
failure could not be confined, were much more likely to receive breath- 
less, romantic coverage than private, easily controllable demonstrations. 
Technological display involved drama; more importantly, it involved the 
public. Technological display also had to involve a new visual or aural 


• 22 ■ 



Marconi and the America’s Cup 


experience for spectators: a street had to be lit for the first time, music 
played without musicians present, or news bulletins flashed instantly to 
awaiting crowds. Such demonstrations gave reporters the proper setting 
for writing about the connections between technology and society: they 
could speculate about what the new invention would mean to ordinary, 
everyday people. The bias toward technological display favored the 
public and the dramatic while tending to overlook the private, the incre- 
mental, the small, and the overly theoretical. Marconi understood this 
journalistic bias well, and he was adept at exploiting it. 

While Marconi’s style was clearly successful, the fantastic nature of 
his invention also gripped the journalistic imagination. The New York 
Times captured the excitement in classic nineteenth-century prose: “We 
of the latter edge of the nineteenth century have become supercilious 
with regard to novelties in science; yet our languor may be stirred at the 
prospect of telegraphing through air and wood and stone without so 
much as a copper wire to carry the message. We are learning to launch 
our winged words.” 60 Sending messages unaided by wires through that 
strange environment, the ether, was miraculous. Wireless seemed the 
technical equivalent of telepathy: intelligence could pass between sender 
and receiver without tangible connection. As one journal put it, wireless 
stimulated the imagination and made people “think that things greatly 
hoped for [could] be always reached.” 61 Thus, to many, wireless bridged 
the chasm between science and metaphysics, between the known and 
the unknown, between actual achievement and limitless possibility. 

Such a wonder offered both mundane and more lofty opportunities. 
One of its most immediate applications to “everyday affairs” would be 
establishing communication between ships and the shore and thus reduc- 
ing the number of disasters at sea. 62 Much was written about potential 
military applications. The telegraph had “dissolved the unity” that had 
existed between transportation and communication before 1844, and 
wireless promised to reconnect these two powerful networks. 63 But 
while such a service was no doubt a great stride forward, for the press it 
was not the only potential use for the invention. The possibilities seemed 
so much grander, seemed to extend far beyond the advantages that might 
be enjoyed by ships’ passengers. To fulfill its promise as embellished by 
the press, wireless had to provide truly democratic benefits and touch 
millions instead of hundreds. Like its predecessor the telegraph, wireless 
was cast as a moral force that would bring the world closer to peace. 
Popular Science Monthly observed that, through wireless, “the nerves of 
the whole world [were], so to speak, being bound together, so that a 
touch in one country [was] transmitted instantly to a far-distant one.” 64 


• 23 • 




Early publicity photograph of Marconi reading a wireless message 
while his assistant George Kemp looks on, ca. 1900. 


Families and friends separated from one another could now be 
bound together, too, through this new invention. The New York Times 
foresaw a time when “wireless telegraphy would make a father on the 
old New England farm and his son in Seattle . . . neighbors — perhaps by 
the use of their own private apparatus .” 65 Century Magazine offered a 
more poignant vision, 

of a time when, if a person wanted to call to a friend he knew not 
where, he could call in a very loud electromagnetic voice, heard by him 
who had the electromagnetic ear, silent to him who had it not. “Where 
are you?” he would say. A small reply would come “I am at the bottom 
of a coal mine, or crossing the Andes, or in the middle of the Atlantic.” 

Or perhaps in spite of all the calling, no reply would come, and the 
person would then know that his friend was dead. Think of what this 
would mean, of the calling which goes on every day from room to 
room in a house, and then think of that calling extending from pole to 
pole, not a noisy babble, but a call audible to him who wants to hear, 
and absolutely silent to all others. It would be almost like dreamland 
and ghostland, not the ghostland cultivated by a heated imagination, 
but a real communication from distance based on true physical laws. 66 


. 24 ■ 



Marconi and the America’s Cup 


These wistful forecasts, which envisioned the time when anyone 
who wanted to could use an “electromagnetic voice” to contact distant 
friends or relatives, played on the emotional discontinuities people expe- 
rienced as a result of increasing geographical mobility. Such predictions 
also reflected widespread frustration over corporate control of the exist- 
ing communications networks. The early quixotic hopes for the tele- 
graph and telephone had deflated as the inventions came to be managed 
by large-scale organizations more intent on profits than on public ser- 
vice. 67 By the turn of the century, Western Union was one of America’s 
most resented monopolies, and Bell Telephone hardly inspired public 
affection. But lines and wires were easy to control. Wireless appeared to 
offer another chance. For it was not at all clear in 1899 how, or even if, 
corporations could own or manage the airwaves. It seemed that wireless 
might be the truly democratic, decentralized communication technology 
people had yearned for, a device each individual would control and use 
whenever he or she wanted, without tolls, and without operators. 

The journalistic motivations for promoting Marconi and his in- 
vention so enthusiastically contained no small dose of economic self- 
interest. Wireless promised to accelerate and cheapen news gathering, 
an attractive prospect to publishers resentful of the telegraph companies 
and their high-priced service. The transoceanic cable companies faced no 
competition, and they all followed the same rate schedule. Newspapers 
in the late 1890s were paying ten cents a word for press dispatches from 
London, while private parties and businesses were paying twenty-five 
cents a word. The press considered these prices extortionate. Referring 
to Western Union as a “monopolistic serpent,” the New York Times 
complained: “The transmission of dispatches by ocean cable is far more 
speedy and much less costly than it was fifteen years ago, yet we go on 
paying the old prices. . . . We are living in an age of lower and lower 
prices — except for cable dispatches.” 68 Complaining about the telegraph 
monopoly, the Herald looked forward to the end of a situation in which 
“American newspapers, American merchants, and shippers [were] 
entirely at the mercy of this monopoly and wholly dependent upon its 
lines for the transmission and receipt of news.” 69 The New York Times 
sarcastically noted: “Obviously the claim that the Atlantic Cables are 
now worked to their capacity, and that any lowering of their tariffs 
would be ruinous, it not sustained by arithmetic.” 70 The paper quoted 
Professor Michael Pupin, who characterized the telegraph companies as 
technically reactionary: “The Western Union and Postal Companies are 
both using antiquated methods. The Western Union Company does not 
spend ten cents a year for experiments, so far as I can learn. A man who 


25 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


offers them an improvement is treated like a book agent. One seems to 
feel that there is a big sign over the door inventors and Scientists Not 
Wanted.’ ” 71 

So as not to seem too self-interested, however, the press couched its 
complaints in terms of larger humanitarian concerns. The high cable rates 
were really everyone’s concern, editorials warned, because they af- 
fected the quality of international diplomacy and understanding. Ser- 
monizing that “nothing so fosters and promotes a mutual understanding 
and a community of sentiment and interests as cheap, speedy, and conve- 
nient communication,” the New York Times warned that the high cable 
rates threatened world peace, and reminded readers that “at the time of 
the Trent Affair [the United States] nearly got into a war with England 
through the lack of cable communication.” The Herald echoed these 
sentiments, warning of “the danger of a community being dependent 
upon one sole line of telegraphic communication.” 72 Thus, it wasn’t 
simply that the cable companies charged too much: journalistic rhetoric 
cast them as selfish obstacles to the free exchange of ideas, and as amoral 
business firms that placed greed before world peace. While these monop- 
olies were damned, romantic phrases such as “community of sentiment” 
veiled, and thus slyly promoted, the press’s own economic agenda. 

Newspaper editors reasoned that if Marconi competed with the 
telegraph, cable prices would have to come down. Furthermore, because 
there were no wires or cables to maintain, it was believed that wireless 
would be the less expensive system to operate, especially over water. 
With wireless, each newspaper could conceivably operate and control 
its own stations. In 1899, the New York Times predicted that wireless 
competition would produce a “wonderful cheapening of telegraphy and 
an inconceivable extension of its use in common affairs.” 73 The press 
eagerly awaited every advance in the new art, and with each achieve- 
ment predicted that the telegraph trust was about to be toppled. Marconi 
quickly realized that he was offering not only an extension to telegraphy, 
but also the possibility of an alternative to an increasingly inflexible and 
unpopular communications system. In many ways he was filling a great- 
er need than he initially had thought. 

In 1899, the press began constructing the meaning of wireless tele- 
graphy. What emerged was a web of significance containing noteworthy 
lines of tension. On the one hand, wireless would be the agent of al- 
truism, because it would save lives and promote mutual understanding. 
It would reduce modern-day loneliness and isolation by providing indi- 
viduals with a way to contact loved ones far away. On an individual and 
societal level, then, wireless would restore a sense of community in an 


• 26 ■ 



Marconi and the America’s Cup 


increasingly anticommunal world. And wireless might even undermine 
the seemingly ineluctable march of monopoly capitalism by allowing 
Americans to circumvent Western Union and Bell Telephone, and to take 
modern communications into their own hands. At the same time, how- 
ever, wireless would expedite commerce, bolster the military, and fur- 
ther the economic goals of the press. Wireless would be antimonopoly 
but pro-business. All these contradictory desires swirled around the in- 
vention, defining it, simultaneously, as the restorer of tradition and the 
harbinger of a new era. Wireless would, at one and the same time, 
promote capitalism and defy it. 

Marconi had received the favorable publicity he so wanted and 
needed. Although other Americans had tried to exploit wireless telegra- 
phy and to become its “discoverer," Marconi had successfully preempted 
the field. His success in the journalistic arena resulted from the dynamic 
interaction between his own skills as a promoter and the established 
journalistic conventions of the time. The inventor-hero was a stock char- 
acter in the press; he was used to humanize technology, and his tribula- 
tions and successes provided reporters with a narrative structure within 
which to embed the more abstract aspects of science and inventing that 
often defied conventional storytelling. To become an inventor-hero, a 
man had to have a revolutionary invention that he was willing to display 
in a dramatic, public fashion. But he also had to be able to charm report- 
ers. Thomas Edison had this talent, and so did Marconi. Both men under- 
stood their public roles: they knew that modesty, a sense of humor, 
openness, and a touch of anti-intellectualism were essential to public 
recognition. What both men understood, instinctively, was the emerging 
cult of celebrity in American journalism. Marconi’s stunning success with 
the American public and the popular press led Electrical World to com- 
ment: “Marconi’s managers have shown that they have nothing to learn 
from Yankeedom as to the art of commercial exploitation of an inventor 
and his inventions .” 74 

But the coverage Marconi received was not an unmixed blessing, for 
while it applauded him and his invention, it also conjured up uses for the 
invention which Marconi had not sanctioned or proposed. The predic- 
tions in the newspapers and magazines about an electromagnetic voice 
for all no doubt seemed merely fanciful and harmless musings intended to 
fan interest. But they would eventually prove less peripheral and less 
innocuous than Marconi may have appreciated. 

Marconi had combined scientific discoveries and laboratory apparat- 
us into a commercially practical system of sending messages without 
wires. He had succeeded at technological preemption, and he had legiti- 


■ 27 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


mated that preemption through widespread and enthusiastic press cover- 
age. With his public victory achieved, Marconi now faced the more 
tedious and frustrating process of establishing his invention in commer- 
cial spheres. He had to determine how to market the device and how to 
make it pay, and this process would involve negotiations with govern- 
ments. It was not the sort of work Marconi enjoyed, but he was develop- 
ing a clear conception of where wireless fit into the marketplace, a 
conception reinforced by the news-gathering needs of the newspaper 
business. What he could not know was how some Americans — other 
ambitious inventors and corporate clients, as well as an eager press and 
certain of its readers — would ultimately substitute their vision of the 
technology for the inventor’s own. The first substitution would have to 
be technological. Even as Marconi savored his triumph at the yacht races, 
aspiring competitors considered how to circumvent his patents. 


• 28 • 



CHAPTER TWO 


COMPETITION OVER WIRELESS 
TECHNOLOGY 

The Inventors’ Struggles for Technical Distinction 

1899-1903 


IN OCTOBER OF 1899, at the America’s Cup races, the social construc- 
tion of radio had begun. A foreign-born inventor introduced a revolution- 
ary communications technology, and the newness of both were made 
familiar through journalistic practices, especially typecasting and analo- 
gy. The press presented Marconi as a typical inventor-hero and described 
his invention as resembling the telegraph, only better. Romantic, flowery 
language helped make comprehensible this latest advance in electromag- 
netic theory and practice. News-writing practices thus provided conven- 
tional and comforting ways of thinking about something quite radically 
different. Not incidentally, the press managed to legitimate Marconi as 
the first and true discoverer of wireless telegraphy. 

This was just the beginning, however, and only one part of the social 
construction process. Such public mediations of a technology’s applica- 
tions interacted with inventors’ private, individual, often idiosyncratic 
ideas about how the invention might evolve. These were technical and 
highly specified ideas, focusing on the discrete components of, in this 
case, the wireless system. But these ideas were not formed within a 
vacuum. Private, technical insights were very much affected by the 
larger public celebrations of technology which praised certain types of 
inventions and inventors, and ignored others. 

Three aspiring inventors read about Marconi’s success at the yacht 
races with particular interest. Reginald Fessenden, Lee De Forest, and 
John S. Stone had each experimented with wireless telegraphy by Oc- 
tober 1899: Fessenden as a professor in a university lab, De Forest for his 
doctoral dissertation, and Stone for Bell Telephone. At different stages in 
their careers, with widely disparate training, goals, and personalities, 


. 29 ■ 


INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


Fessenden, De Forest, and Stone provided Marconi with his most for- 
midable technical competition in the United States. Despite their dif- 
ferences, these three inventors shared the conviction that Marconi’s sys- 
tem was technologically vulnerable and could be displaced. This convic- 
tion, and the way each man gave expression to it through his inventions, 
had lasting social consequences. 

All three men were well aware of wireless’s technical limitations, 
and they were inclined to regard the journalistic hoopla about a new 
wireless “wizard” with skepticism. At the same time, they saw a man 
whose wireless apparatus was no more advanced than their own gain- 
ing enormous public recognition and succeeding as an independent in- 
ventor. Faith in their own technical and theoretical superiority inter- 
mixed with envy and resentment of Marconi’s success. These men were 
members of a culture whose popular press had lionized Marconi and had 
cast his device as revolutionary and filled with unlimited potential, but 
they were also part of the scientific and engineering subcultures that 
viewed Marconi and his invention from a considerably more critical 
stance. 

To the press and its readers, Marconi brought visions of enhanced 
societal and individual control through technical mastery. But to Ameri- 
can scientists and engineers, a constituency with more of a vested interest 
in Marconi’s work, his success threatened to compromise the profes- 
sional control and prestige they had spent the past half-century securing. 
Members of the American scientific and engineering communities had 
been undergoing self-imposed professionalization in the late nineteenth 
century, distinguishing themselves from mere “amateurs” and “tin- 
kerers” by their education, research, and institutional affiliations. Spe- 
cializations became more clearly defined while barriers to entry in both 
science and engineering became more imposing . 1 According to the new 
professional codes, men such as Edison and Marconi had not been prop- 
erly trained, did not embrace the requisite body of information or out- 
look, and did not pay homage to the recently enshrined leaders or net- 
works of the scientific and engineering professions. Such inventors, even 
successful ones, were no longer quite legitimate. In fact, the enormous 
publicity Edison and Marconi received no doubt further undercut their 
respectability among academics . 2 Edison’s disparaging references to the 
“old German professor” who studied “the fuzz on a bee” instead of 
working on practical problems were eagerly quoted in the popular 
press . 3 The lack of emphasis on and, often, animosity toward scientific 
training in such journalistic accounts reinforced the growing schism be- 
tween men of science and men of practice. Thus, when men such as 


• 30 ■ 


Competition over Wireless Technology 


Edison or Marconi garnered bold, front-page headlines, while diligent 
and rigorously educated scientists remained unrecognized, resentment 
brewed. To the scientific community, the headlines obscured the decades 
of experimental and theoretical work from which the invention had 
evolved. To the engineers, Marconi’s cut-and-try approach represented 
an outdated and increasingly discredited method that for too long had 
made their work seem unsystematic and unscientific. 

American scientists and engineers placed more credence in what 
technical journals reported about wireless telegraphy, and these journals 
pointed out the invention’s flaws. Criticism clustered around two major 
objections: that Marconi had invented nothing new, and that, even if he 
had, his system was impracticable. The London Electrician and New 
York’s Electrical World commented that Marconi’s device was unpatent- 
able and that successful wireless transmission did not depend on any- 
thing originated by Marconi. One editorial stated: “It appears question- 
able if Marconi really owns a master patent on his system, for the very 
good reason that the principles underlying its operation are well known 
to electricians. In producing results he uses in combination certain appa- 
ratus which were devised and used by others before him, and whatever 
he may hold cannot cover much more than a combination of apparatus 
used previously for other purposes.” 4 Marconi’s claim that he was the 
first to discover the advantages of the aerial was labeled as absurd. 5 

While it was true that Marconi’s basic components were not new, 
this criticism missed the point. It was the special combination of these 
components into a system, and a determined application of that system to 
commercial and naval communications, which made Marconi’s contribu- 
tion special. Thus, there was a reasonable and persuasive retort to this 
charge. However, more nagging concerns about the versatility and relia- 
bility of wireless surfaced, concerns less easily dismissed. 

In 1899, wireless reception was still erratic, maximum reliable 
transmission distance was about thirty-five miles, and there was no 
means of tuning. Because all of Marconi’s apparatus sent and received on 
the same general frequency, only one transmitter could signal in a given 
area at a time. What the newspapers categorized as a major technological 
advance, scientists and engineers viewed as a technical step backward. 
Critics charged that wireless offered no more secrecy than semaphores, 
because anyone with a receiver could pick up the messages. As one 
writer complained, “Waves are distributed in all directions, and cannot 
be concentrated in one direction, all methods for doing this having appar- 
ently failed.” 6 Not only did this scattering of waves preclude privacy, it 
also limited the number of transmitters that could operate in a given 


• 31 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


neighborhood. Electrical World granted that wireless might have some 
practical value where there was only one transmitter, but cautioned that 
“when the transmissions [multiplied] in number and direction, the diffi- 
culties would probably increase enormously.” 7 Professor Michael Pupin 
at Columbia went so far as to warn that working “more than one set of 
instruments at any one time between two continents” was impossible 
“on account of mutual interference.” 8 Because there was as yet no tuning 
mechanism, and the receiver was not sufficiently selective, the receiver 
responded indiscriminately to all sorts of frequencies, both man-made 
and natural, lending credence to Pupin’s assertion. Paper tapes from the 
turn of the century, on which the Morse inker recorded the incoming dots 
and dashes, reveal what happened during reception: instead of the Morse 
code, the inker printed either a semicontinuous line, occasionally broken 
up at arbitrary points along the tape, or gibberish, lines that were neither 
dots nor dashes. 

The energy of the sparking coil was as yet unchanneled into specific 
wavelengths, so a broad spectrum of wave bands was disrupted by one 
transmitter in an area. The transmitter, in fact, emitted not one but sever- 
al wavelengths: the “fundamental” wave and a group of harmonics. 
These waves were referred to as “highly damped.” Today, radio trans- 
mitters emit a specific and continuous wave frequency, but the crude 
spark gap transmitters of 1900 sent out intermittent wave trains of a 
particular length and strength which declined as the energy subsided. An 
instructive analogy is that of a swinging pendulum. If a pendulum is 
powered by electricity, it will swing continuously to the same distance 
on each side. A smaller pendulum also operated by a continuous power 
source could swing parallel to and equidistant from this larger pendulum 
and never collide or interfere with it. However, if a pendulum is merely 
pushed once, the distance it sweeps will decline with each swing: no 
smaller pendulum could swing inside the sweeps of the larger one with- 
out colliding with it. As the power of the spark gap diminished after each 
dot and dash, many lesser wavelengths were transmitted, and a very 
broad band of radio frequencies was disrupted with each message. The 
highly damped wave, then, produced major interference problems. 

The coherer was considered unreliable and slow. Electrical World 
complained: “The present rate of speed of Marconi’s system is only fif- 
teen words a minute, which fact has been urged against its prac- 
ticability in competition with the ordinary telegraph, by which a speed 
of 600 words a minute has been attained.” 9 Another drawback was the 
noise accompanying wireless transmission, which was described by a 
reporter for the New York Times as deafening: “While [the wireless] 


• 32 • 



Competition over Wireless Technology 


exchange was in progress there was a noise from the station like that of 
a rapid-fire gun in action. So loud were the reports that they could be 
heard half a mile away. . . . Flashes of light were seen crossing the win- 
dows in the receiving house. They were bluish white and flashed hori- 
zontally. The house . . . shook with the violence of the shocks.” 10 

Critics also claimed that wireless would never transmit over signifi- 
cant distances, because there were physical limits on the height of aerials. 
In 1899, scientists believed that transmissions of sixteen miles would 
require an aerial 80 feet high; twenty-two miles would require a 140- 
foot conductor. Extending these calculations led to the inescapable con- 
clusion that transmitting a message across the Atlantic was impossible: 
the aerials would have to be between 1,100 and 1,500 feet high, several 
hundred feet higher than the Eiffel Tower. 11 The popular press, eager to 
believe Marconi’s public statements, either overlooked these problems or 
assured its readers that improvements in these areas were imminent. The 
New York Times was one of Marconi’s greatest champions, and if it 
printed any stories critical of his apparatus, they were buried in the back 
of the paper. The technical press, with its more specialized and skeptical 
audience, remained unconvinced. 

Had Marconi introduced his invention as a method of broadcasting 
information to the public, several of these criticisms would have been 
less troubling. But his device was conceived and presented as a telegraph 
using no wires. It was meant to send messages in dots and dashes to a 
specifically designated private receiver. This was how Marconi mar- 
keted wireless, and this was the basis on which it was judged. In his 
initial comments to the press, Marconi maintained that wireless would 
not compete with or replace line wires. Rather, wireless would be used 
where telegraphy was impossible, such as between ships or from ship to 
shore. Thus, the invention, at least with regard to applications, was not 
offering a revolutionary new service, it was simply extending an older 
one. Since at the time there was no service between ships and the shore 
except that provided by dispatch boats, megaphones, and other limited 
means, any service that provided speedier communications could be seen 
as an improvement. This was certainly the New York Times’s view. “It is 
unfair,” the paper complained, “to set up for Marconi standards never 
sought in and impossible of attainment by the systems with which his 
beautiful invention competes.” 12 But a society based on and dedicated to 
cumulative and orderly technical progress expected the latest marvel to 
possess at least the advantages of its predecessor. Where wireless could 
not match a one-on-one comparison of features with the telegraph, it 
was criticized in the technical press as a failure. 


■ 33 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


In several respects, Marconi had put his invention on a Procrustean 
bed. Wireless telegraphy was not best suited to do what Marconi want- 
ed it to, and he was intent on eliminating the very aspects of the apparat- 
us which later made radio such a distinctive and revolutionary invention. 
Wireless sent waves in all directions; Marconi wanted directional trans- 
mission. The transmitted messages were public; Marconi wanted them 
to be private. But Marconi did not view the properties of wave propaga- 
tion as absolutes. He was a persistent man, determined to shape the 
technology to conform to his vision of commercial requirements. This 
vision was manifest in the drawings accompanying the Herald’s cover- 
age of the yacht races. The illustrations representing the “path of electric 
waves from transmitter to receivers” do not show waves at all but, 
rather, straight lines linking Marconi, on the Grande Duchesse, with the 
Herald stations on shore. The drawing makes clear how Marconi con- 
ceptualized his service: if the spectrum would not cooperate, then he 
would make sure that his apparatus compensated for and ultimately 
overruled natural phenomena. Commercially, this single-mindedness 
was Marconi’s greatest strength; technically, it proved to be his Achilles’ 
heel. 

Marconi had demonstrated that wireless was possible. Now he had 
to show that it was practical and reliable. Like entrepreneurs before and 
since, he had to make people believe they needed his invention, not just 
for special occasions, but on a regular basis. Convincing them would be 
that much more difficult if only one person at a time could transmit or 
receive. Marconi had to allay the doubts and misgivings of potential 
buyers of wireless by significantly extending the distance of transmission 
and by devising a method of tuning. To meet these challenges, Marconi 
continued to work as technological revisionist par excellence. Rather 
than trying radically new approaches or devices that might take him too 
far afield from his immediate commercial goals, Marconi revised what he 
had already developed and borrowed directly from the scientific work of 
others. 

Marconi’s technical work was always shaped by his conception of 
the marketplace. The clients he hoped to attract — steamship companies, 
newspapers, and navies — would require transmission over great dis- 
tances. To meet this demand, Marconi’s approach was to make his exist- 
ing apparatus larger and more powerful. He also developed wireless as 
a complete technological system: he concentrated on the components of 
that system and on the important connections between those com- 
ponents. 

Marconi’s lack of formal scientific training at times liberated and at 


■ 34 • 



Competition over Wireless Technology 


other times constrained his technical progress. He rarely allowed con- 
temporary scientific warnings about the unattainability of a particular 
goal to deter him; he treated theory as an afterthought. For example, he 
tested wireless under a variety of conditions: over long distances, during 
the day and at night, in the tropics, over saltwater and over freshwater. 
He was not trying to verify a particular theory, he was simply collecting 
data. He did not test hypotheses, he generated information that was yet 
to be explained theoretically. Like many engineers, Marconi was inad- 
vertently involved in a feedback process. He adapted certain tech- 
nological innovations that had been designed to test scientific theory and 
sought to make them commercially successful. Then, in his experimenta- 
tion, he produced phenomena that had yet to be explained scientifically 
and stimulated others to embark on new theoretical work in physics and 
electrical engineering. 13 However, Marconi was sometimes handi- 
capped by his lack of training. Because he could not rely on his own 
scientific background or an academic tradition, he was compelled to 
improve wireless primarily by an arduous process of trial and error. 

His training and approach may have cost him time and money, but 
Marconi was not convinced, in 1900, that university-trained scientists 
would necessarily produce quicker or better results. After all, he, not 
they, had developed wireless telegraphy. They had thought certain things 
impossible; he had proven otherwise. But Marconi was under a consider- 
able amount of pressure to improve his system as quickly and decisively 
as possible. He had to decide whether to bring an eminent, university- 
trained scientist into the company who might expedite the experimental 
work while simultaneously conferring academic legitimacy. Yet as a very 
young man, a man younger than his assistants, it was important to him 
that he assert himself, technically and psychologically, as the final author- 
ity in his company. Here was a shrewd man, aware of his own educa- 
tional limitations, pulled by conflicting needs, and beset by his own 
ambivalence. In 1900, he retained John Ambrose Fleming, a scientist 
twice his age who had worked under James Clerk Maxwell and was 
professor of electrical engineering at University College, London. This 
selection brought the company additional prestige and eventually added 
richness and depth to its experimental work. 

Although Fleming and Marconi ultimately developed a productive 
and highly complementary partnership, their early relationship was un- 
easy. The tensions between the two professions they represented — sci- 
entist and inventor/entrepreneur — were exemplified in their initial con- 
test over authority. Marconi complained that Fleming’s technical contri- 
butions were highly impracticable. He wrote to his managing director, 


35 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


H. Cuthbert Hall, “Dr. Fleming seems to introduce so many complica- 
tions which in practice prove useless, that I think it will be well that the 
details with regard to the changes in the plant here . . . should be dis- 
cussed and settled between you and Mr. Entwhistle, as I am afraid that 
no useful purpose would be served by referring them to Dr. Fleming .” 14 
Marconi also objected to Fleming’s efforts to gain final approval on all 
technical matters, a function Marconi intended to reserve for himself. 
“This attitude on his part,” wrote Marconi, “opens up again the wider 
question of his general position in the company and I am desirous that this 
should be clearly defined to him without further delay. It should be 
explained to him that his function as Consulting Engineer is simply to 
advise upon points which may be expressly referred to him and in no 
way places upon the Company any obligation to seek his advice upon 
any matters in which it is deemed unnecessary .” 15 Marconi wanted the 
scientist’s advice, but only on specific points, and within technical param- 
eters he had already defined. Marconi has been praised for having the 
foresight to retain a man of Fleming’s talents and reputation, but this was 
not a decision the inventor initially embraced wholeheartedly. The al- 
liance between the man of practice and the man of science was not 
without its early jealousies, which revealed as much about the changing 
relationships among inventors, scientists, and engineers as they did about 
the characters of the two men. 

In the early development of wireless telegraphy, the personalities of 
the various inventors profoundly influenced the course of technical and 
bureaucratic progress . 16 Marconi, who was sometimes described as 
aloof, humorless, and self-centered, could not have succeeded as he did if 
he had really been such a man . 17 On the contrary, when technical obsta- 
cles confronted the Marconi Company, obstacles that could strain even 
the most harmonious working relationships, it was Marconi’s person- 
ality that propelled the work forward. He experimented constantly and 
with great energy, setting a standard he expected all his assistants to 
follow — and they did . 18 What remains of his correspondence to mem- 
bers of the company reveals a man possessing charm, loyalty, and sen- 
sitivity to the feelings of others. While he had little tolerance for mediocre 
technical work, he was quick to praise those who did their jobs well . 19 
Even as he insisted that Fleming’s ambition be checked, Marconi urged 
the company’s manager to handle the matter with tact, writing, “I do not 
wish to inflict any unnecessary wound on Dr. Fleming’s susceptibili- 
ties .” 20 Marconi also had a dry, worldly, and occasionally self-deprecat- 
ing sense of humor, which he felt most comfortable unveiling in private, 
rather than in public, settings. All of these qualities, coupled with his 


• 36 • 



Competition over Wireless Technology 


celebrity status and his grand vision, made him a compelling man to work 
for and sustained his co-workers when progress was slow and the lime- 
light flickered. 

With the various public demonstrations behind them, and technical 
problems not only unsolved but exposed, Marconi and his assistants 
intensified their work in 1900, confronting the problems of reception and 
tuning. They hoped to discover solutions that would overcome inter- 
ference and lack of secrecy. 

Marconi had first considered the problem of tuning in 1897. He had 
initially hoped to “beam” his wireless signals between two specific 
points, intending, in this way, to direct a particular message to a particu- 
lar receiver and thus establish a network of invisible, private, noninter- 
fering lines. He had used parabolic reflectors to direct the Hertzian 
waves from transmitter to receiver, but these reflectors could only aim 
short waves, and Marconi was moving toward using longer waves to 
achieve greater distance. However, longer waves precluded directional 
transmission: they passed right over Marconi’s mirrors. To continue with 
the reflector method of directional transmission, Marconi would have 
had to make the mirrors massive, and this was clearly impracticable. 
Marconi’s two goals, greater distance and directional transmission, were 
at odds, and he had to reconcile them if he was going to progress. Mar- 
coni had to abandon the optical approach, with its cumbersome mirrors, 
and find an electrical solution to the problem. He realized that, rather 
than using the same broad-banded wavelength, which he would phys- 
ically “beam” between points A and B, he had to send out different 
wavelengths and develop receivers that would select between them. 
Because Marconi believed at this time that an infinite number of wave- 
lengths existed, he thought that tuning would open up the airwaves to as 
many customers as were interested. 

For a solution to this problem of tuning the transmissions, Marconi 
turned to the experimental work done by Oliver Lodge. By the 1890s 
Lodge was a well-known authority on electricity, electromagnetism, 
and the ether, and an instructor of physics at University College, Liver- 
pool. 21 Lodge had experimented with tuning in 1889, but he did not 
resume his work until Marconi’s early public demonstrations. In 1897 he 
patented his method of syntonic wireless telegraphy, a patent Marconi 
ultimately acquired. For at least ten years the word syntonic was syn- 
onymous with tuned. Lodge studied selective resonance, a phenomenon 
in which sound waves produce a sympathetic reaction in similar circuits. 
For example, a tuning fork, when struck, will generate vibrations in an 
identical tuning fork nearby. Scientists had discovered that similar elec- 


• 37 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


trical circuits could also be resonant, having the same natural frequency 
of oscillation, and this property provided the basis for Lodge’s work. He 
reasoned that if he could match certain aspects of the circuits in wireless 
transmitters and receivers and make them electrically resonant, then 
they would respond “sympathetically” to each other but not to apparat- 
us not similarly adjusted. Lodge discovered that by adding matched in- 
duction coils to the aerial connections of both transmitter and receiver, he 
dramatically increased the selectivity of his apparatus and could tune it to 
a specific frequency. 

Marconi studied Lodge’s system of syntonic wireless and improved 
on it. Realizing that resonance in the two aerial circuits was insufficient, 
Marconi extended Lodge’s principle of resonance, making the two closed 
sending and receiving circuits resonant, as well, to maximize the effects 
of tuning. Consequently, Marconi incorporated not two, but four, tuned 
circuits. He designed adjustable induction coils, and he constructed con- 
densers of variable capacity. He added what we know today as the 
tuning dial, and, by matching the inductance and capacity of the receiving 
station to that of the transmitting station, he achieved selective reception. 
Marconi’s improvements in tuning were covered under English patent 
number 7777. 22 The famous “four sevens” of 1900 turned out to be a 
crucial patent for Marconi and one of the most frequently litigated claims 
in wireless history. 

Marconi had done his most risky borrowing yet: he clearly had 
made use of the features specified in Lodge’s 1897 patent. Why Lodge did 
not immediately sue for infringement remains unclear; that he did not do 
so significantly strengthened Marconi’s patent position in Europe and 
America. Armed with this innovation, Marconi demonstrated for the 
public first duplex, then multiplex transmission. He would connect two 
or more differently tuned receivers to the same aerial, and the receivers 
would only respond to the messages intended for them, even when the 
messages arrived simultaneously. These public demonstrations in 1900 
and 1901 encouraged hope that tuning would quickly overcome several 
of the invention’s major drawbacks. 23 

At the turn of the century, then, Marconi’s system of wireless tele- 
graphy was conceptually complete, albeit in rudimentary form. All the 
components of Marconi’s system needed refinement, but the weakest 
feature was the coherer. Marconi’s approach from the start had been to 
improve on, revise, and make more practicable existing apparatus, and in 
his attempt from 1897 through 1902 to improve the cohering-decohering 
process, he also followed this approach. He needed a receiver that would 
be simultaneously rugged and sensitive, and the quest for the one quality 


• 38 • 



Competition over Wireless Technology 


often prevented the achievement of the other. Through painstaking ex- 
perimentation, Marconi remodeled and upgraded the device. Still, the 
coherer required a large amount of energy. Two other major problems 
persisted. The coherer was slow and, worse, it was capricious. This 
unreliability was due in large part to the decohering process. Because it 
was necessary to tap the filings back to their high-resistance state after 
every dot and dash, reception was very sluggish, and it became even 
more retarded if the filings were not tapped back quite right. Electrical 
World complained about “the changeability of the position of the filings, 
which [were] as varied as the designs of a kaleidoscope.” “In some 
instances,” the journal reported, “the filings are arranged so that they 
would respond to the feeblest impulse, and upon the very next stroke the 
marvelous sensitiveness is destroyed and the tube becomes inoperative.” 
One experimenter described the frustrations that accompanied the ap- 
pliance: “It might go along very nicely, and then, without warning and 
for no apparent reason, go dead or fail to respond. Then it might remain 
dead until it got good and ready to come to life. No amount of coaxing 
would have any effect.” Also, “the noise occasioned by the concussion” 
of decohering was maddening, especially when this was registered on 
the Morse sounder as a signal. 24 The coherer was also limited by its own 
internal point of diminishing returns. One could increase its sensitivity, 
but only up to a point, after which the device would respond to all sorts 
of static, including its own sparks. 25 

Efforts to upgrade the coherer demonstrated that the device could 
not be improved any further — it had to be replaced. In 1902, Marconi 
patented a new, less fickle receiver, the magnetic detector. Like Mar- 
coni’s other innovations, Maggie, as the detector was affectionately 
called, was based on the experimental work of another scientist. Lord 
Rutherford in 1895 had discovered that electromagnetic waves could 
serve as a demagnetizing agent, and he had demonstrated that magne- 
tized needles could be used as detectors of Hertzian waves. 26 After 
experimentation, Marconi assembled a box on top of which two wooden 
disks lay flat at each end. An endless band of fine iron wires moved 
slowly, by clockwork, around the two disks and past the poles of a pair of 
stationary magnets. When the iron band passed underneath the two 
permanent magnets, it underwent a change in magnetism and became 
sensitive to incoming electromagnetic waves. With each train of oscilla- 
tions, the band suddenly lost its magnetism and induced a current that 
produced a signal heard through headphones as an audible note. As the 
band revolved, a new portion of it came into position under the magnets, 
making the receiver self-restoring. 27 


• 39 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


Messages were not recorded on tape as they were with the coherer. 
Now reliance on the discriminating capabilities of the human ear became 
an important and welcome ingredient in the receiving process, helping to 
reduce error by selecting real signals from false. But because the magnet- 
ic detector, like other receivers of its time, did not yet include a loud- 
speaker, the operator had to keep the headphones to his ears at all times, 
or he would lose messages in part or in whole. As a result, transmitting at 
a predetermined time quickly came to be important. Different wave- 
lengths had different frequencies that were heard as different pitches. 
Thus, the magnetic detector allowed the operator to identify the tones of 
different transmitters. Because there was no decohering process, Mar- 
coni was able to increase reception to thirty words a minute immediate- 
ly, twice the speed of reception with the coherer. The magnetic detector 
was also more stable for shipboard use, and it became very popular, 
especially in Europe, until it was finally displaced by the vacuum tube 
during World War I. Marconi wrote enthusiastically to his manager in 
June 1902 that the new detector worked very well on board ship and 
that transmission across great distances was possible even by an operator 
who was not highly skilled. 28 

Through a process of determined adaptation and revision, Marconi 
retooled the insights and apparatus of others to make his system more 
reliable, efficient, and elegant. He hired highly competent scientists and 
engineers to assist him. But they all viewed wireless through the lens he 
provided, and that view was framed by very particular commercial, 
technical, and cultural parameters. It was a view that never lost sight of 
the telegraph, seen as the technological and commercial model to emu- 
late. Marconi wanted wireless to possess all the advantages of wire 
telegraphy and yet to be free of telegraphy’s limitations, such as high cost 
and lack of mobility. As a result, he concentrated on increasing the dis- 
tance and speed of transmission and on perfecting tuning, which he 
hoped would finally ensure secrecy. 

Fessenden, De Forest, and Stone each in his own way sought to push 
wireless beyond this framework. While Marconi considered wireless 
telegraphy over great distances to be his final product, the Americans 
gradually came to regard wireless as a necessary steppingstone to their 
eventual goal: transmitting the human voice without wires. To do this, 
they rejected Marconi’s reliance on intermittent, highly damped waves 
and instead devised apparatus that would transmit and receive continu- 
ous waves. 

With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that the work of all 
three men, when taken together, eventually represented a coherent chal- 


• 40 ■ 



Competition over Wireless Technology 


Ienge to Marconi’s conception of wireless. But when each man first 
started out, his approach was quite distinctive. Socialization — family 
background, education, and work — affected how each of these men 
would approach wireless telegraphy technically, and also determined 
the extent to which public visions of radio would influence private tin- 
kering with discrete components. Past experiences and individual aspira- 
tions also shaped how each man would respond to the social context of 
inventing as it existed in 1899. 

Fessenden, De Forest, and Stone were surrounded by mixed mes- 
sages about how a gifted and ambitious engineer might make his way 
through the world. The process of inventing was portrayed one way in 
the press, but it was evolving in very different ways within institutions. 
Men wanting to work as inventors were torn between the compelling if 
unrealistic image of the autonomous inventor-hero and the very real but 
less glamorous institutionalization of inventing in the corporate sector. 
Journalistic renditions of inventor-heroes such as Edison and Marconi 
suggested that with persistence, patience, and hard work, any tech- 
nically talented young man could achieve fame and fortune. The news- 
papers emphasized that the highly individualistic man could, through 
inventing, establish his own intellectual and financial independence. 

The reality, of course, was quite different. Invention increasingly 
occurred within a large corporation’s laboratory. Edison’s own work 
contributed to constricting the range of opportunities: historians agree 
that Edison’s most revolutionary and far-reaching invention was not the 
light bulb or the phonograph; it was the organized process of invention — 
the “invention factory” — as embodied in the industrial research lab. 
Menlo Park, which Edison established in 1876, was the prototype. Iron- 
ically, America’s archetypal independent inventor designed a communal 
and hierarchical system of inventing which in many ways would be 
antagonistic to the next generation of freelance tinkerers. By the turn of 
the century, General Electric and a few other electrical and chemical 
concerns had established such labs; by the 1920s, these labs would be a 
common feature of the corporate structure. 29 Men who preferred se- 
curity to autonomy and who could accommodate themselves to working 
in an institutional setting would find in the research lab a haven pre- 
viously unavailable to scientists and engineers. Such men were able to 
experiment and invent for both the company and themselves. 30 But for 
those who were loners, who could never reconcile their personal ambi- 
tions with the goals of a corporation, the industrial research lab was 
either a prison or a powerful competitor. 

For Fessenden, De Forest, and Stone, the dream of becoming an 


• 41 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


independent inventor was tinged with the knowledge that it was institu- 
tions that provided electrical engineers with financial remuneration and 
professional affiliation. All three men worked in research labs sometime 
in their careers, and all were deeply ambivalent about their own rela- 
tionship to the institutional setting. They wanted their inventions to be 
their own, they wanted to set their own technical agenda, and they 
wanted to break out of the anonymous middle tiers of the corporate, 
engineering hierarchy. Yet they all required the technical and financial 
resources institutions provided. Each man, as he entered the field of 
wireless telegraphy, carried within him these contradictory needs, needs 
shaped by individual biography and by the larger cultural milieu. 


REGINALD FESSENDEN was born in Canada in 1866. 31 His father was 
a minister, his mother the daughter of a farmer and inventor. Family life 
was warm and supportive, and Fessenden, who quickly proved to be an 
excellent student, received steady encouragement from his parents. He 
was given little reason to doubt himself. He attended a military academy 
for two years, and then went away to the Trinity College School, where 
he competed fervently, and successfully, for top honors. While trying to 
decide on college, he was invited by his father’s alma mater, Bishop’s 
College, to fill the position of “mathematical mastership.” At Bishop’s he 
taught math, Greek, and French, and he began reading the scientific 
journals in the school’s library. Although his wife has written that he 
completed “all necessary work for the college degree” during this peri- 
od, there is no evidence that Fessenden ever graduated or received such a 
degree. 32 

In 1883, he moved to Bermuda, where he became the principal and 
teaching staff (of one) at the Whitney Institute. The technical journals, 
which Fessenden followed, were by this time filled with articles about 
Thomas Edison’s achievements, especially with the Pearl Street Station, 
which was providing a fifty-square-block section of downtown New 
York with incandescent lighting. These articles were published in Amer- 
ica and conveyed the sense that the Northeast was the hub of inventive 
activity. They apparently helped Fessenden crystallize his goals. In 1885 
he left his teaching job and sailed for New York, determined to work for 
Edison. After repeated rebuffs (after all, Fessenden knew little about 
electricity at the time), he finally got a position with the Edison Machine 
Works, which was laying mains along Madison and Fifth avenues in 
New York. Proving himself to be a quick study and efficient worker, 
Fessenden moved up to the position of inspecting engineer, and when the 


• 42 ■ 



Competition over Wireless Technology 


laying of mains was successfully completed in December 1886, he was 
offered the chance to work with Edison in his lab. He eagerly accepted. 

Fessenden was twenty-one years old, ripe for a mentor, and ready 
for lasting professional impressions. His three years with Edison, judging 
by his subsequent career, shaped Fessenden’s attitudes toward the pro- 
cess of invention. He was awed by Edison’s facilities, especially the new 
West Orange lab, which included a complete technical library and exten- 
sive, first-rate equipment. He noted Edison’s cavalier disregard for ex- 
penses as long as his backers kept paying the bills. He witnessed Edison’s 
relentless empiricism, which was often characterized by a stubborn and 
sometimes counterproductive adherence to ad hoc technical theories and 
approaches. 33 He participated in the camaraderie among the men, nur- 
tured by long hours, common pursuits, and the sharing of highly spe- 
cialized information. He became Edison’s chief chemist and worked pri- 
marily on developing insulation material. 

In 1890, Fessenden was about to begin experiments with Hertzian 
waves when corporate reorganization brought about retrenchment. The 
Edison General Electric Company was in the process of negotiating a 
merger with Thomson-Houston, one of its major competitors. (The talks 
resulted in the formation of General Electric in 1892.) Edison’s financial 
backers, eager to curtail some of his experimental extravagances, insisted 
that costs be reduced. Whether Fessenden was a casuality of this policy or 
simply resigned remains unclear. When he left the Edison company, Fes- 
senden became the assistant to J. D. Kelley, the electrician for the United 
States Company, the Newark, New Jersey, branch of Westinghouse. He 
worked on dynamos and began experimenting with alternating current. 
After approximately one year, he moved to Massachusetts to work for 
the Stanley Company, a small electrical firm based in Pittsfield. These 
two jobs — the one with United, the other with Stanley — are worth 
mentioning less because of what Fessenden accomplished in them than 
because of the contacts he made. While working for United, Fessenden 
patented, for Westinghouse, a method of sealing incandescent lamps. 
When these patents proved valuable to the company two years later, 
George Westinghouse took note of who had authored them. The Stanley 
Company sent him to England to study British lighting and power sys- 
tems, and during the trip he stopped at Cambridge. There he met the 
British physicist Joseph John Thomson, with whom he discussed elec- 
tromagnetic theory; he also toured Maxwell’s enshrined laboratory. In 
two short years, then, Fessenden had established critical intellectual and 
commercial links. 

After seven years of working in various electrical labs, Fessenden 


• 43 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


returned to academics. In 1892 he became professor of electrical en- 
gineering at Purdue. His department benefited from a generous appropri- 
ation, and thus the new professor did not have to scrimp on equipment. 
Fessenden lectured on and recreated Hertz’s experiments. The following 
year he received a letter from the chancellor of the University of Pitts- 
burgh, who told Fessenden that Westinghouse had developed “a particu- 
lar regard” for the engineer and wanted him to assume the newly created 
chair of electrical engineering at the university. Westinghouse wanted 
Fessenden nearby; Fessenden accepted. Although Fessenden was to have 
pursued research on the incandescent lamp for Westinghouse while in 
Pittsburgh, no long-term alliance between him and the company seems 
to have materalized. Fessenden spent the next seven years, from 1893 to 
1900, in Pittsburgh. As the course of study was new, and undoubtedly 
received some financial support from Westinghouse, Fessenden once 
again had the freedom to select the equipment he needed and to shape 
the curriculum. He continued to explore wireless telegraphy, experi- 
mented with X-rays, began to receive local publicity for his technical 
achievements, and established a consulting firm. He had been, both si- 
multaneously and alternately, a scientist and an engineer, a man of theory 
and a man of practice. 34 

In 1899, at the age of thirty-three, Fessenden had seven years of 
laboratory and eight years of college teaching experience. Both of these 
environments had been supportive, promoting the ethos of sharing infor- 
mation, and providing the reassurance that his work was valued and his 
knowledge expanding. While each setting was attuned to its own prac- 
tical considerations, both settings valued the pursuit and acquisition of 
knowledge. These positions had brought Fessenden progressively more 
prestige and autonomy, which fanned his confidence and enthusiasm. 
But in the lab, and in the classroom, Fessenden had been insulated from 
the marketplace. His positions as chemist and electrical engineer did not 
require selling, either to financial backers or to the public, who would be 
interested in results, not technical principles. Whether with Edison or at 
his own consulting firm, problems were brought to him for solving. He 
had, as yet, no experience in exploiting or developing potential markets. 
And, while he had supervised the work of others, he had yet to find 
himself situated directly between financiers who understood little about 
his work and clients who needed to be wooed. 

While he had no reason to doubt himself in 1899, Fessenden also had 
little reason to doubt others. He was, in fact, still idealistic, unable to 
“conceive of anything but honest, willing cooperation” from colleagues, 


■ 44 • 



Competition over Wireless Technology 


backers, and customers. 35 His knowledge of and work in mathematics, 
chemistry, and electrical engineering, and specifically in dynamos, gave 
him a decided technical advantage over Marconi and any other com- 
petitors. Unfortunately, he thought this knowledge was all he needed to 
ensure success. Fessenden knew well the realms of theory and experi- 
mentation, and he had successfully integrated them intellectually and 
professionally. He was about to apply that accumulated knowledge, and 
the fresh perspective it brought, to wireless telegraphy. But the same 
experience that brought such distinction to his experimental work had ill 
prepared him for the role of entrepreneur. 

In 1900, Fessenden was approached by the U.S. Weather Bureau to 
experiment with wireless telegraphy on behalf of the Department of 
Agriculture. The Weather Bureau had been concentrating on improving 
its ability to predict floods and storms, especially hurricanes, and wire- 
less appeared to be a promising new tool. 36 Cleveland Abbe, acting as 
representative for Willis L. Moore, chief of the bureau, suggested that 
Fessenden begin his work in the spring of 1900. Fessenden thought the 
position would provide him with complete freedom to experiment with 
wireless, and the contract clearly stated that Fessenden would retain the 
patent rights to all inventions developed during his tenure with the 
bureau. He could select whatever apparatus he needed for the work, and 
he could bring an assistant of his own choosing. The offer seemed ideal to 
Fessenden. Work began on Cobb Island, Maryland, sixty miles southeast 
of Washington, D.C. 

Fessenden began his experimentation by developing an alternative 
to the coherer. But to suggest that Fessenden was simply a revisionist like 
Marconi, or that he focused primarily on improving the components of 
wireless, would be inaccurate. Fessenden already believed that Mar- 
coni’s entire system “was based on the wrong principle.” 37 Highly 
damped waves, intermittent transmission, and intermittent reception — 
all had to go. Fessenden was convinced that the spark gap had to be 
replaced by a transmitter that sent out a continuous, sustained wave 
train, and that the receiver had to be constantly receptive to detect these 
waves. This insight was no insignificant breakthrough: it would ulti- 
mately redefine the field, transforming wireless telegraphy into radio. 
Marconi’s intermittent waves, which surged and then ebbed, could carry 
discrete signals such as dots and dashes. But speech and music are sus- 
tained sound and require continuous waves to be transmitted through 
space. Fessenden was the first inventor to emphasize the importance of 
striving for the generation and detection of continuous waves. As he 


■ 45 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


nurtured this goal, he sought to develop wireless components that would 
both outclass Marconi’s and serve as steppingstones to continuous wave 
transmission. 

In 1900, he tackled reception first. Drawing on his knowledge of 
both chemistry and electricity, Fessenden developed what he called the 
liquid barretter, or electrolytic detector, which consisted of a very fine 
platinum wire dipped into a small cup of dilute nitric acid. A platinum 
electrode was sealed in the bottom of the cup, providing an electrical 
connection to a local battery. When a slight current passed through the 
circuit, minute bubbles formed around the wire, insulating it from the 
liquid and thus shutting off the battery current from the headphones. 
High-frequency oscillations, however, eliminated the bubbles clustering 
around the wire and permitted the current to flow. When the oscillations 
stopped, the bubbles began forming again, cutting off the current until the 
next signals arrived. 38 Fessenden eliminated the tape used by Marconi’s 
coherer and substituted headphones so the operator could hear the in- 
coming signals. 

The electrolytic detector possessed clear advantages over the co- 
herer. It provided faster reception, was more reliable, required a fraction 
of the energy consumed by the coherer, and allowed the operator to 
distinguish between the different pitches of different transmitters. How- 
ever, this receiver was not popular with some of the operators, because 
the acid often spilled or leaked and the end of the platinum wire deterio- 
rated quickly and had to be melted down frequently to maintain max- 
imum sensitivity. Despite these drawbacks, the detector became widely 
used in the United States, particularly in the U.S. Navy. To Fessenden, the 
electrolytic detector was important because of its superiority over the 
coherer. More significantly, because the receiver had the potential of 
being “constantly receptive,” to use Fessenden’s words, it would be 
capable of receiving not just dots and dashes, but the human voice, as 
well. 

Fessenden’s most revolutionary contribution to wireless, and the 
idea that distinguished his from Marconi’s approach to wireless, was the 
radical idea of using a dynamo not merely to power a spark gap or 
another form of transmitter, but as the transmitter itself. This dynamo 
would have to generate very high frequency alternating current. In theo- 
ry, such an alternator would consist of a magnetic field rotating about a 
fixed coil of wire or a coil rotating through the magnetic field, thereby 
inducing alternating current. The alternator’s source of power came from 
a direct current dynamo, a battery of storage cells, or reciprocating steam 
engines. The frequency of the alternator was measured in cycles per 


■ 46 ■ 



Competition over Wireless Technology 


second. Sixty cycles per second was considered a feasible frequency in 
the early 1900s, but Fessenden had something more extravagant in mind: 
100,000 cycles per second, a speed considered utterly unattainable. 39 
The enormous speed required made the mechanical obstacles to devising 
such a generator seem insurmountable. 

On June 1, 1900, Fessenden wrote one of the most naive and yet 
important letters of his life. It was addressed to the great electrical en- 
gineer at General Electric, Charles Steinmetz. “You would confer a very 
great favor on me,” wrote Fessenden, “if you would induce your com- 
pany to bid on the apparatus specified and to guarantee delivery within a 
few months. Possibly the design might be of interest to you personally, as 
an experiment, though probably you have designed such machines be- 
fore.” He then added optimistically, “We will probably need a number of 
such sets if these work satisfactorily, possibly 40 to 50.” 40 But Steinmetz 
had not designed such machines before. Nonetheless, he accepted the 
challenge, suggesting Fessenden try 10,000 cycles first, which Fessenden 
initially thought would “do very well.” 41 By July 1901, Steinmetz re- 
ported that he was successfully operating a 10,000-cycle alternator, but 
Fessenden remained unsatisfied; he insisted on the higher frequencies. 42 
He wrote to General Electric placing an order for a 100,000-cycle alter- 
nator. A General Electric official responded: “It is with very much reluc- 
tance that we accept an order of this kind, and were it not for the fact that 
we have a very high regard for your experimental work, and desire to 
aid you in every possible way, we should feel obliged to refuse to under- 
take the work which is so special in its character and so different from 
anything which we have heretofore attempted.” 43 Despite misgivings, 
General Electric accepted the order, and the ensuing collaboration be- 
tween Fessenden and General Electric produced major technical and 
institutional upheavals. 

Confident of the correctness of his vision, and drawing on a rich and 
diverse background, Fessenden quickly conceived of additional technical 
alternatives to Marconi’s system. By July of 1901, he had devised a 
wireless telephone. While he admitted that the device was “still a 
toy . . . only capable of working over short distances,” he had great 
hopes for its potential. 44 The Weather Bureau was so pleased with his 
new receiver that it authorized the erection of three wireless stations 
along the mid- Atlantic seaboard, at Cape Hatteras, Roanoke Island, and 
Cape Henry. The seacoast along the Outer Banks of North Carolina was 
notorious for its shipwrecks and as the point where hurricanes often 
intensified as they headed toward the Northeast. If the three new sta- 
tions helped save lives and property, the bureau planned to extend its 


■ 47 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


wireless chain even farther up and down the coast. Unfortunately for 
Fessenden, the bureaucratic niche he thought would provide him with 
both autonomy and security eventually expected him to sacrifice the 
former to preserve the latter. Because Fessenden was unwilling to make 
this sacrifice, early government support of wireless telegraphy experi- 
mentation was, as we shall see, short-lived. 

Fessenden’s major American rival, Lee De Forest, had received a 
more advanced formal education at a prestigious, and some might say 
elite, institution. Yet De Forest’s childhood experiences as a cultural out- 
cast exerted a profound influence on him, making him the wireless in- 
ventor most attuned to the aspirations and frustrations of masses of 
Americans. When De Forest was six, his father, a stern Congregationalist 
minister, became president of Talladega College, a school for blacks in 
Alabama. 45 The De Forests, living on a black campus in a black neigh- 
borhood on a meager salary, were treated like pariahs by the other 
members of the white community. For De Forest, there was little comfort 
at home: his father was a rigid disciplinarian, constantly emphasizing the 
merits of obedience, humility, denial, and thrift. 

De Forest found escape in the realms of fantasy, especially those 
most far removed from his father’s world. He learned to live in the future 
more than in the present, a trait that would both help and hinder his later 
work. The myth of the inventor-hero, with its suggestions of environ- 
mental mastery, autonomy, agnosticism, and, of course, fame and for- 
tune, firmly gripped the boy’s imagination. Edison, whom he learned 
about through newspapers and magazines, became his idol, the man he 
most wanted to emulate. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Edison was 
cast as a wizard who held seances with nature’s most mysterious 
forces. 46 Thus, for De Forest, Edison embodied the materialism he craved 
and the spirituality he could not yet escape. 

When De Forest was in his mid-teens, he went to the Mt. Hermon 
Prep School in Massachusetts to prepare for enrollment at Yale. But he 
would not be attending Yale College, as his father had wished. Instead, 
he attended Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, which he hoped would 
prepare him to become an inventor. His classmates remembered him as 
brash and loud, and he was named the “homeliest” and “nerviest” per- 
son in his class. He reportedly also received one vote for “brightest” and 
sixteen for “thinks he is.” 47 A rural Southerner in an elite northern 
school, a poor man among the well-to-do, and one with no assured 
future among those sanguine with the confidence money and connec- 
tions bring, he was even more than before an outcast. 

He was, however, undeterred from his goal of becoming an in- 


• 48 • 


Competition over Wireless Technology 



Lee De Forest. 


ventor. In fact, it was through his inventions, whatever they might be, 
that he hoped to gain the trinity comprising the American dream: fame, 
fortune, and love. He would show them all; he would have the last 
laugh. His diaries are filled more with purple prose poetry and eager, 
wistful dreams than with technical discussions. His inventions would be 
a means, not an end. He wanted to be a celebrity. It is fitting that such a 
man, excluded from a culture of which he desperately wanted to be a 
part, and more obsessed with money and fame than with knowledge, 
would be the inventor who was most responsible for transforming wire- 
less telegraphy into radio. De Forest did not have Fessenden’s conceptual 
clarity about the technology, and he came to appreciate the importance of 
continuous waves after Fessenden. Yet through his applications of wire- 
less, especially after 1906, he, more than any other figure in the radio 
community, pioneered in using wireless for broadcasting entertainment 
to the American public. 

After completing the undergraduate course, De Forest stayed on to 
finish his doctorate and wrote what is described by many as one of the 
first dissertations relating to wireless. He graduated in the spring of 1899. 


• 49 • 





INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


He had just moved to Chicago to begin work in the dynamo department 
of Western Electric when Marconi brought his wireless apparatus to 
America. De Forest wrote to Marconi, citing his work at Yale and asking 
for a job. Marconi, preoccupied with his own work, apparently did not 
respond. 48 Not unmindful of the extensive publicity Marconi received 
that fall, De Forest resumed his work on wireless, looking first for a 
substitute for the coherer. 

Unlike Fessenden, who concentrated on transforming wireless 
transmission, De Forest focused on reception. His early technical work, 
to put it kindly, was highly derivative. In 1900, he and an associate from 
Western Electric, Edward Smythe, developed the responder or electro- 
lytic anticoherer, which provided increased speed and more sensitivity. 
A not particularly innovative receiver, the responder resembled the co- 
herer; it consisted of a tube fitted with two metal plugs separated by a 
space of about 1/100 of an inch. De Forest and Smythe immersed the 
filings in a glycerine and water electrolyte, reasoning that the electrolytic 
action of the receiver lowered the electrical resistance of the gap more 
quickly, thus speeding up reception. Their technical term for this elec- 
trolyzable paste was goo. The signals were heard through a telephone 
receiver because, like Fessenden, De Forest wanted to get away from the 
unreliable recorder method. 49 The similarities between De Forest’s and 
Fessenden’s alternatives to the coherer are striking, and they would 
quickly become less coincidental. 

In 1903, De Forest and his new assistant Clifford Babcock devel- 
oped a receiver they called the spade electrode or electro, which, like 
Fessenden’s detector, consisted of a fine platinum wire sealed in a glass 
tube and suspended over a cup of acid. The genesis of this receiver is 
suspect, as Babcock had recently left Fessenden’s employ to work for De 
Forest, and Fessenden won several patent suits against De Forest in 1905 
and 1906, establishing the priority of the electrolytic detector. By the 
time Fessenden was able to prevent De Forest from marketing the elec- 
tro, De Forest had already profitted from his rival’s invention. But his 
dissatisfaction with the responder, and the court decisions in favor of 
Fessenden, prompted De Forest to continue looking for a reliable, sen- 
sitive, and distinctive receiver. His breakthrough was the receiver he 
called the audion, the forerunner of the vacuum tube. 

At the same time that Marconi was working out his system of tuning 
in England, an American with little previous practical experience in 
wireless was also tackling the interference problem. John Stone Stone — 
both his mother’s maiden name and his father’s name was Stone — is 
rarely mentioned in radio histories. His achievements were not as dra- 


• 50 • 



Competition over Wireless Technology 


matic as Fessenden’s or De Forest’s, and he did little work on transmitters 
or receivers. It was the connections within the system that fascinated 
him. And his work was important because, intellectually and technically, 
it contributed to the American quest for continuous, undamped, tuned 
wavelengths. 50 Stone’s solution to tuning was an outgrowth of the work 
being done on automatic switching in the telephone industry; he success- 
fully transposed the principle of selectivity based on resonance from one 
communications system to another. Stone was a mathematician who 
studied at Columbia and the Johns Hopkins University in the late 1880s. 
In 1890, Stone went to work in the experimental department of the 
American Bell Telephone Laboratory in Boston. At Bell, Stone learned 
the fundamentals of telephone engineering and began exploring the phe- 
nomenon of resonance in electrical circuits. His studies were not unlike 
Lodge’s, except that Stone was working in telephony with relatively 
low frequencies. 

In 1894 the Bell patents expired, prompting the formation of inde- 
pendent telephone companies competing for customers. The low prices 
that resulted brought more people into the telephone “network,” and the 
central switchboards became congested as operators tried to connect all 
the calls manually. Gardiner Hubbard, Alexander Graham Bell’s father- 
in-law and partner in the telephone enterprise, approached Stone about 
developing an automatic switchboard. The phenomenon of resonance 
Stone had been studying seemed to provide a way to implement Hub- 
bard’s plan. Stone proposed equipping telephone sets with resonant cir- 
cuits, each of which would correspond to a circuit in a friend’s telephone. 
Then, “by a simple operation, as by pressing a button,” a caller would be 
able to connect one of these resonant circuits to his line. Unlike Mar- 
coni’s, Stone’s approach to the selectivity problem was mathematical and 
theoretical. Stone made drawings of his scheme but did not construct a 
model of it, as Hubbard had suggested. 51 

Simultaneously, Stone was becoming interested in wireless telegra- 
phy and the phenomenon of high-frequency resonance. In 1892, at the 
request of his superior Hammond V. Hayes, Stone attempted to transmit 
speech, without wires, from the shore to a ship at sea. Although his 
experiments failed, Stone became extremely interested in wireless, and 
by 1899 he believed that his experimental interests so conflicted with his 
assigned duties at Bell that he resigned. He then established a consulting 
firm and continued to explore wireless and the problem of selectivity. 

Stone was working toward what he called one-wavedness, his 
alternative to damped waves, as well as on tuning, and he saw the two 
goals as inseparable. Building on his previous work on resonance and 


• 51 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


selectivity for Bell Telephone, Stone applied these principles to wireless. 
If each transmitter, and the receiver it was intended to activate, con- 
tained resonant circuits, then that particular receiver should respond only 
to its matched transmitter and to no others. Stone’s tuning required that 
the closed and open circuits be resonant, and thus his patent was similar 
to Marconi’s. But Stone introduced a refinement Marconi had not: loose 
coupling. Loose coupling referred to the separation of the two windings 
of the transformer to reduce the effects of mutual inductance. In a trans- 
former closely coupled, mutual induction reduced the efficiency of the 
coil. After the energy was transferred from the spark gap circuit to the 
open circuit, the aerial was to radiate the waves. However, some of the 
energy was transferred back, by induction, from the open to the closed 
circuit, depriving the wave trains of needed energy. These “losses” con- 
tributed to the “highly damped” wave whose strength and length dimin- 
ished as the energy subsided, causing the transmission of more than one 
wavelength. The closer the circuits were coupled, the greater the damp- 
ing effect. 

Stone found that if the coupling between the circuits was loose, the 
effects of mutual inductance were reduced and most of the energy was 
radiated at one principal wavelength. His early inductive coupler con- 
sisted of wire wound on X-shaped frames. His later transformers were 
made of metal tubing in the form of two circular coils. The coils were 
separated by space, and the secondary' slid up and down on a central rod 
and was locked into the desired spot with a set screw. Because Stone’s 
waves were more defined, interference between them was reduced and 
tuning was made more precise. Stone began his experiments on the top 
floor of a warehouse in Boston. He set up two transmitters and two 
receivers and sent signals simultaneously over a distance of several hun- 
dred feet to demonstrate selectivity. He then demonstrated his selective 
signaling between Cambridge and Lynn, Massachusetts, a distance of 
about fifteen miles. 52 Stone applied for a patent on his system of tuning in 
February 1900, months before Marconi’s American patent application. 

Marconi and Stone had come to their solutions differently, Marconi 
relying on Lodge’s previous work plus trial and error, Stone drawing on 
theory and his work at Bell Telephone. Marconi had begun with a set of 
components and bound them together into a system with his “four sev- 
ens” patent. Stone, on the other hand, had the linkage elegantly mapped 
out first, but his components were not as clearly conceived, which gave 
Marconi an advantage. What Stone called one-wavedness represented 
Marconi’s principal challenge in America. 

Stone and Fessenden were driven by a determination to overthrow 


■ 52 • 



Competition over Wireless Technology 


the concepts and the technology on which Marconi’s version of wireless 
was based. They were quickly dissatisfied with spark transmission and 
highly damped waves; they were aiming for nothing less than the propa- 
gation and reception of continuous waves. Both men’s backgrounds, 
which combined academic work with extensive lab experience, al- 
lowed them to synthesize theory and experimentation in novel ways. 
Fessenden linked wireless to work previously done in electrical power 
transmission and chemistry, and Stone linked wireless to telephony. 
They were motivated by intellectual ambition and engineering pride. 
They had the calm confidence that a supportive upbringing and years of 
advancement within institutional settings can bring. Although by 1899 
each man wanted more time to experiment, more technical autonomy, 
and professional recognition, neither man was driven primarily by a 
desire to become a media hero. 

De Forest’s motivation was different. Gripped by the overriding 
desire for personal celebrity, De Forest hoped to use inventing to attain 
widespread public acclaim. Unlike Fessenden and Stone, he did not have 
his own technological or conceptual alternative which scientific ambi- 
tion compelled him to refine. His initial technical work was the least 
original of the work done by the three inventors. Yet precisely because 
De Forest was so susceptible to the myth of the inventor-hero, and per- 
sonally felt the connections between wireless telegraphy and individual 
aspirations, he would soon become the inventor most responsible for 
transforming wireless telegraphy into radio broadcasting. 

While Fessenden, De Forest, and Stone began to feel their way into 
the wireless business, and started questioning the technical and concep- 
tual foundations on which Marconi’s system rested, Marconi continued 
to concentrate on extending the range of his apparatus. Having patented 
his method of tuning and begun his work on improved reception, Mar- 
coni began considering sites in England and North America for high- 
power wireless stations. His goal: to establish a regular, commercial, 
transatlantic wireless service. 

The faith and audacity such a goal represented are apparent even to 
the present-day visitor to Poldhu, Cornwall, the site he selected for the 
English high-power station. Poldhu Bay is a small inlet bordered by 
rocky cliffs several hundred feet high. A one-lane country road winds 
down to the beach and then up a steep hill to the Poldhu Hotel, where 
Marconi stayed and conducted his experiments at the turn of the century. 
Every piece of equipment, from the dynamos to the masts for the aerials, 
had to be painstakingly imported to this remote, isolated, and exposed 
location. Marconi had to look out over the sea, seeing nothing in the 


■ 53 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


distance, and convince his assistants and his board of directors that they 
were going to succeed in sending wireless signals to North America. 

Work on the English station began in October 1900 and was com- 
pleted, except for the aerials, in January 1901. In addition to the obvious 
physical impediments, construction was undertaken in the face of scien- 
tific doubt concerning whether such long-distance signaling would ever 
be feasible. Marconi had to ignore, and ultimately to refute, the assertion 
that the curvature of the earth posed an insurmountable obstacle to 
wireless transmission. The general consensus in scientific circles that 
electromagnetic waves, like light, traveled in a straight line suggested 
that Marconi would be unable to send messages to ships beyond the 
horizon because the waves would not follow the curvature of the earth. 
Michael Pupin of Columbia recounted “many heated discussions” on 
how severely “the curvature of the earth limited the system.” 53 Scien- 
tists did not yet appreciate the role the ionosphere played in reflecting 
high-frequency waves back to earth and thus allowing them to travel 
beyond line of sight. Marconi did not participate in these arguments, he 
simply persisted in his experiments. By the summer of 1901, he had 
succeeded in receiving signals 180 miles from Poldhu. For him, the debate 
was over; the scientists were left to explain what had made it possible. 
To the man who had extended wireless transmission from a few feet to 
nearly 200 miles, crossing the Atlantic did not seem too outrageous a 
goal. 

Marconi’s approach was to make all the components of his system 
bigger or more powerful. To achieve transatlantic transmission, he had to 
increase the capacity area of his aerial. Early experimenters estimated 
that transatlantic transmission would require aerials more than one thou- 
sand feet high to surmount the “huge curve 100 miles high” between 
England and Canada. 54 When Marconi discovered that the curvature of 
the earth did not impede long-distance work, he recognized that his 
aerials could be effective without being sky-high. Further tests estab- 
lished that a sort of wirework was more effective than a single-wire 
vertical conductor. 55 Limiting the height of his antennas while increasing 
their range was essential: first, taller masts were more vulnerable to 
storms, and, second, the new ocean liners, whose masts were much 
shorter than those on sailing ships, would require a maximum range from 
a minimum height in their aerials. 

Experimenting with different types of aerials was an expensive and 
frustrating process. Timber of sufficient size had to be imported to En- 
gland by steamer, and then brought as close to Poldhu as possible by 
train. Laborers and animals brought the masts the rest of the way. Elec- 


. 54 • 



Competition over Wireless Technology 


trical World reported: “The number of men and horses required increases 
the cost of handling to an enormous figure in many cases, as wireless 
stations are almost without exception erected at exposed points where 
the roads and the means of transportion are about as bad as they can well 
be imagined.” 56 Guy wires made of rope or metal held the wooden masts 
in place, but even so, the poles were unstable and a gusty coastal storm 
could level them. Technicians assembled the aerial and the guys while the 
apparatus was lying on the ground, and then with the help of horses, the 
men hoisted the mast upright. This process required a full day and perfect 
weather. Marconi and his assistants had to predetermine what the appro- 
priate tension of the guys would be, because once the aerial was erected, 
tension adjustment was difficult if not impossible. Despite numerous 
guys and sturdy wood, the masts continued to blow down. 

For his transatlantic experiments, which he planned to conduct be- 
tween Cornwall and Cape Cod, Marconi had an enormous circular aerial 
built at Poldhu, “a ring of twenty wooden masts, each about 200 feet 
high, arranged in a semicircle 200 feet in diameter, covering about an 
acre.” This aerial consisted of four-hundred wires forming an inverted 
cone. 57 Marconi had multiplied tremendously the number of vertical 
wires to obtain a greater radiating and receptive surface. On September 
17, 1901, only one month after this elaborate antenna had been erected, 
a severe coastal storm blew it down. In a few hours the storm destroyed 
what had taken nearly a year to build. A few weeks later, the sister 
aerial at the Wellfleet station on Cape Cod blew down also. The double 
aerial fiasco, aside from demoralizing Marconi and his men and imposing 
a significant financial loss, totally redefined the scope of Marconi’s first 
transatlantic demonstration. He had hoped to unveil two completed, 
working stations, capable of two-way, transatlantic communication. 
This was no longer possible for the immediate future, and Marconi had 
either to wait or to scale down his technological goals. 

To Marconi and his associates, the choice was clear: priority was 
more important than technical perfection. As his manager, Cuthbert Hall, 
wrote, “It is of the highest importance that we should even in a tempo- 
rary fashion be the first to get across the Atlantic.” 58 Marconi had to settle 
for one-way transmission and had to change his location from Cape Cod 
to Newfoundland, a point much closer to England. While the circular 
aerial was being rebuilt at Wellfleet for future experiments, Marconi 
opted for a less elaborate system at Poldhu, an inverted triangle of fifty 
copper wires. In Newfoundland, he would attach the receiving aerial to 
a kite. 59 

To span the Atlantic, Marconi also had to increase the power of the 


■ 55 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


sparking coil. He did not alter the design of the induction coil, he simply 
intensified the power supply. Instead of batteries, a low-frequency alter- 
nator driven by an internal combustion engine powered the induction 
coil. Henry Herbert McClure of McClure’s Magazine described what 
such a spark gap emitted: “When the operator pressed the telegraphic 
key, a spark a foot long and as thick as a man’s wrist, the most powerful 
electric flash yet devised, sprang across the gap; the very ground nearby 
quivered and crackled with the energy.” 60 

By the autumn of 1901, Marconi had patented a system for tuning, 
had made reception more reliable, and had increased his transmission 
distance to two hundred miles. Yet many of the old problems persisted. 
Despite the improvements, wireless was still not secret, the messages 
still could be intercepted or disrupted by a rival station, and, compared to 
the capabilities of cable and telegraph, transmission was slow and recep- 
tion haphazard. Furthermore, at this time Marconi confronted, in differ- 
ent ways, two of the Americans seeking to challenge his preeminence in 
the wireless field. In the summer of 1901, Cuthbert Hall had written to 
Marconi, warning him about Fessenden’s work under the auspices of the 
U.S. government. Hall had learned about Fessenden from the general 
manager of the Herald, and wrote to Marconi: “He is working with 
instruments and theories different from Marconi’s.” 61 Marconi learned of 
De Forest’s work in a less private and more embarrassing manner. 

Marconi was scheduled to cover the 1901 yacht races for the Associ- 
ated Press. He probably assumed that he would once again have the 
airwaves to himself. But De Forest, eager to gain the spotlight by chal- 
lenging Marconi and unveiling his responder, left Chicago for New York 
in the summer of 1901. Through a Yale classmate, De Forest persuaded 
Charles Siedler, a former mayor of Jersey City, to advance one thousand 
dollars to support De Forest’s demonstrations. He also secured a contract 
with the Associated Press’s rival, the Publisher’s Press Association, to 
compete with Marconi in reporting the progress of the races. The mood 
was less festive in New York than in 1899; President McKinley had died 
of an assassin’s bullet on September 14, and when the races began at the 
end of the month the country was still in shock. Nor did wireless perform 
as effectively, or evoke as much enthusiasm. Marconi’s and De Forest’s 
transmissions interfered with each other, and the two had to work out a 
time-sharing arrangement for sending their reports. In addition, a third, 
“unidentified,” “malicious,” and “very unwelcome” transmitter began 
broadcasting with apparently “no other purpose in view than to upset 
the carefully arranged plans of the two press associations.” This third 
party was the American Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company, a 


56 



Competition over Wireless Technology 


firm established primarily to sell stock to the public. The company’s goal 
was to embarrass Marconi; its operator periodically “leaned on the key,” 
making transmission and reception by others impossible. The unfortu- 
nate results renewed skepticism in Electrical World, which noted that 
“the problem of securing immunity from interference remains to be 
solved.” 62 

Marconi, always the shrewd promoter, knew he had to divert atten- 
tion away from his competitors and from the problems of tuning, inter- 
ference, and interception. He needed another victory in the journalistic 
arena, something for the newspapers rather than for the critical technical 
press. On November 27, 1901, he sailed from England to Newfoundland. 
He downplayed the trip, claiming he was going to conduct some experi- 
ments on ship-to-shore transmission. He was, in fact, about to remind his 
American rivals that whatever their technical visions or pretensions, his 
skill in seducing the popular press was still unmatched. 


ON DECEMBER 15, 1901, huge newspaper headlines announced that 
Marconi had succeeded in transmitting the letter s, at prearranged inter- 
vals, from Cornwall to Newfoundland. The distance covered was two- 
thousand miles, a tenfold leap from his previous transmission record. The 
feat was unsubstantiated and unverifiable. 63 Only Marconi and his as- 
sistants heard the signal. Yet no voices of doubt were raised in the popu- 
lar press. On the contrary, Marconi’s heroic stature became even more 
imposing. Reporters flocked to Newfoundland; newspapers and maga- 
zines ran “exclusive” stories on the event. And the press easily explained 
its ready acceptance of Marconi’s announcement: “So extraordinary is 
the achievement that had it been claimed by any other man than Mar- 
coni, doubts might well have been expressed; but the invariable modesty 
and unusual conservatism of the inventor have satisfied the world at 
large that no such announcement would have been made by Marconi had 
he not possessed the most undoubted proofs of his success.” 64 

Accounts of Marconi’s trip to Newfoundland and his experiments 
quickly crystallized into an extremely flattering legend of a piece with 
previous popular and formulaic accounts of inventing. Marconi, after 
“seven long years — years of many disappointments, vexations, setbacks, 
as well as unequaled success,” arrived, without fanfare, in St. John’s, 
Newfoundland. “He came quietly, gave it out that he intended to try 
signaling to the ships passing the Banks on their way across, and so sent 
up his kites and balloons with hardly a single spectator present.” 65 Re- 
porters emphasized that winter had already begun, and that Marconi 


• 57 • 


INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


struggled valiantly with the elements. He lost several of the balloons and 
kites in the wind, and often two men were required to hang onto the 
lines. To dramatize the suspense of the tests, writers recounted how one 
of Marconi’s assistants at Poldhu had been instructed to send the letter s 
for three hours each day beginning December 11, and that the first day 
Marconi heard nothing. On December 12, at 12:30 p.m., Marconi, not 
quite trusting his own perceptions, handed the earpiece to his assistant 
and asked, “Can you hear anything, Mr. Kemp?” Kemp did indeed hear 
the three dots representing the letter s. But, according to the legend, the 
“quiet, patient, cautious inventor wished to hold his secret.” 66 He did not 
want to notify the press until he was convinced he had heard the signals 
and until he had more evidence, but his excited and devoted assistants 
persuaded the reluctant inventor to go public. Playing on his image of the 
modest, thorough inventor, he later told one reporter that he was “great- 
ly depressed” because he had used the more reliable headphone to listen 
to the signals instead of a Morse inker to record them and therefore had 
no “visible evidence of what he had accomplished, such as the recorder’s 
tape would have furnished.” 67 Ray Stannard Baker, writing for Mc- 
Clure’s Magazine, described the achievement in the breathless and awed 
tones typical of most articles. 

Think for a moment of sitting here on the edge of North America and 
listening to communications sent through space across nearly 2,000 
miles of ocean from the edge of Europe! A cable, marvelous as it is, 
maintains a tangible and material connection between speaker and 
hearer; one can grasp its meaning. But here is nothing but space, a pole 
with a pendant wire on one side of a broad, curving ocean, an uncer- 
tain kite struggling in the air on the other — and thought passing 
between. 68 

We can only infer from these credulous and admiring reports how 
deftly and thoroughly Marconi had ingratiated himself with reporters. To 
a culture that both encouraged and was repelled by the braggart, and that 
might have expected someone who had just signaled across the Atlantic 
to indulge in a little boasting, Marconi’s performance was flawless. He 
had managed to shout and whisper at the same time. He left little room 
on the stage for other aspirants. As one reporter observed, “In the public 
mind, Marconi and wireless telegraphy are one; he is its creator.” 69 
Edison praised him. He was honored at testimonial dinners. Whereas the 
yacht races had revealed that he was technically vulnerable, his “epoch- 
making feat” and the skill with which he staged it applied a patina, with 
significant pow T ers of deflection, to his inventor-hero image. 

While the popular press continued its genuflections, the technical 


• 58 • 


Competition over Wireless Technology 


press printed reactions from members of the scientific community who 
refused to believe Marconi had succeeded and considered the story a 
publicity stunt. What proof, beyond his word, had Marconi offered? Lee 
De Forest, in his diary, expressed his own skepticism while acknowledg- 
ing that, strategically, Marconi had been quite clever: “Signor Marconi 
has played a shrewd coup d’etat whether or not the three dots he says he 
heard came from England. ... He has established his fame and stolen 
thunder from competitors, who may, in a few years, actually send mes- 
sages across the ocean. His stock is soaring and will make the achieve- 
ments of others, however meritorious, look cheap enough in the popular 
eye.” De Forest then summarized the academics’ doubts: “Whether he 
actually received those signals or not, he has certainly offered no real 
proof which scientists can accept; and all this great haloo and adulation 
with his wild talk of transatlantic messages at one cent a word smacks 
decidedly of chicanery and the methods of the professional newspaper 
boomer.” 70 

Professor Branly, developer of the coherer, wondered about the 
conditions under which the work was done and questioned whether it 
had been conducted in a “rigorously scientific manner.” Searching for any 
explanation other than transmission by Hertzian waves, Branly pointed 
out that “it should be definitely determined that there was no influence 
from submarine cables, which might be inductively affected by the trans- 
mission waves and thus have a part in transmitting the signals to the 
receiving station.” 71 Electrical World ventured: “It is quite probable that 
the publication of the results achieved was unauthorized, the experi- 
ments being merely preliminary ones of a scientific rather than practical 
nature.” In the final assessment, according to the journal, “The details 
reported up to the present time are altogether too meagre to enable any 
reliable conclusions to be drawn as to this alleged transmission across the 
Atlantic Ocean. . . . The sudden increase in distance to 2100 miles repre- 
sents more than a tenfold increase of radius, which we should expect to 
be overstepped more gradually.” 72 These expressions of doubt in the 
technical press were drowned out for the general public by the din of 
praise and expressions of wonder which filled the popular magazines 
and newspapers. 

As dramatic as the transatlantic achievement was, and as gratifying 
as it must have been to Marconi stockholders, it still represented a brief 
moment of glory which did not guarantee contracts or regular revenues. 
Duller, more private cultivation was necessary if Marconi was going to 
translate the public preeminence he had gained through the yacht races 
and the letter s into preeminence in the marketplace. 

The transatlantic achievement intensified the fevered expectations 


■ 59 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


of 1899: wireless would bring world peace, freedom from the cable 
companies, a democratized communications system, transcendence over 
space and time. There is a certain irony in the portrait of Marconi as a self- 
effacing and selfless public benefactor. For him „ the transatlantic success 
was the critical first step in achieving a goal he was initially quiet about in 
public: establishing a monopoly, if possible worldwide, in wireless tele- 
graphy. To the press and the public, that a man such as Marconi could be 
thinking in these terms, that he could actually consider trying to monopo- 
lize “the air,” would have seemed both out of character and technically 
preposterous. Behind the scenes, however, establishing such a monopoly 
was Marconi’s fervent hope, and one with which the American in- 
ventors would have to reckon. 

Marconi would himself have to reckon with the inventors’ aspira- 
tions and technological alternatives. Between 1899 and 1901, Marconi 
could afford to, and did, ignore the American technological challenge. He 
was obsessed with long distance Morse code transmission, for which he 
knew there was a market. In the short run, he made the correct technical 
choice. He also knew how to manipulate the journalistic arena to en- 
hance his legitimacy and divert criticism. But Fessenden and Stone, with 
their emphasis on continuous, tuned waves, and De Forest, who hungrily 
coveted Marconi’s celebrity status, continued to work in their labs. They 
also sought to establish wireless firms that would compete with Mar- 
coni. Despite the financial and technological uncertainties surrounding 
them, and despite Marconi’s preemptive displays, these three ambitious 
men sought to design apparatus that would render Marconi’s obsolete. 
Because of the determination of these men, ignoring the American tech- 
nological challenge was a decision Marconi would live to regret. 


60 



CHAPTER THREE 


THE VISIONS AND BUSINESS REALITIES 
OF THE INVENTORS 

1899-1905 


AS MARCONI, FESSENDEN, De Forest, and Stone vied with one an- 
other for technical preeminence and public recognition at the turn of the 
century, they competed in three arenas: the technological, the corporate, 
and the journalistic. Already the Americans were pointing, admittedly 
still in a tentative manner, toward a significant technical departure from 
Marconi. But without success in the other two arenas, their innovations 
would matter little, and without an appreciation of how all three spheres 
interlocked, success could not be sustained. Marconi’s stature in the press 
seemed invincible, but technically, he was vulnerable. Marconi had cap- 
italized on his public image to compensate for his technical vulnerability. 
He had also devised the beginnings of a corporate structure that would 
protect and promote his determined entrepreneurial spirit. Again, the 
Americans had to catch up with Marconi. He had formed his British 
company in London in 1897, and just after the yacht races in 1 899, he had 
formed an American subsidiary. When he signaled across the Atlantic in 
1901, he still faced no corporate competition in America. By 1901, he 
had already devised a fledgling wireless network guided by highly com- 
petitive and exclusionary company policies. 

The Americans, seeing the flaws in Marconi’s apparatus, may have 
believed he was not such a formidable rival. But what Marconi may have 
lacked in technical creativity, he more than made up for with entrepre- 
neurial flair. He was, in fact, a brilliant and determined competitor who 
was quite prepared by both talent and inclination to control and domi- 
nate the wireless market. 

What prompted Fessenden, De Forest, and Stone to try to compete 
with such a man, already established as an inventor-hero and indepen- 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


dent businessman? Certainly personal ambition and technical com- 
petitiveness drove them on. But individual aspirations were reinforced 
by the heady economic climate in America at the turn of the century. The 
society of which these three men were a part was undergoing an ener- 
getic and widely publicized financial boom, and newspapers and maga- 
zines, by highlighting rags-to-riches stories, suggested that this was a 
boom in which all Americans, and not just the rich and established, could 
participate. The stories celebrated Americans who took entrepreneurial 
risks and suggested that success awaited any financially daring indi- 
vidual. It seemed more possible than ever to strike out on one’s own and 
make good. 

The primary source of the get-rich-quick fever was the explosion in 
the American stock market which accompanied, and helped make possi- 
ble, an unprecedented merger movement. In the early 1890s, only rail- 
road and government securities, and just a handful of industrials, were 
traded on Wall Street. Most industrial concerns in the 1880s had been 
“small, closely owned, and commonly regarded as unstable,” and thus 
were not particularly available or attractive as investment oppor- 
tunities. 1 Corporate consolidation, triggered by the desire to reduce com- 
petition, and made possible by New Jersey’s incorporation act of 1889, 
began to unite such firms into large national companies with national 
reputations. Further expansion required additional working capital in 
amounts only generated by selling securities to the public, and such 
securities began appearing on the market just before the panic of 1893. 
When these securities fared well during the depression, investors began 
regarding them as sound investments. By 1897, more than two hundred 
industrials were being quoted in financial journals, and the number kept 
increasing. As family or small partnerships became corporations seeking 
to take advantage of the benefits of selling stock — access to increased 
amounts of capital, and diffusion of liability — more middle-class custom- 
ers, eager for new, promising investment possibilities, were lured into 
the market. 2 

During this revolution in corporate ownership, the press played a 
critical proselytizing role. Two types of actors brought drama and glam- 
our to the explosion on Wall Street: the so-called Captains of Industry 
and the everyday, ordinary person who, through shrewd or lucky spec- 
ulation, made a killing. Certainly J. P. Morgan’s financial legerdemain, 
whereby scraps of paper, properly arranged and exchanged, produced 
millions in profits, was the most legendary. He and the other “Napoleons 
of Finance” became heroes and demigods because of the prodigality of 
their profits and the rapidity with which those profits were made. 3 


■ 62 ■ 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


Stories in the press suggested that putting together the right merger could 
make a man a millionaire overnight. These tycoons, and the trusts they 
personified, evoked a strong American ambivalence toward the con- 
centration of wealth. Muckrakers and reformers attacked the ruthless- 
ness, exploitation, and constriction of competition which frequently ac- 
companied the consolidation in industries. Yet the cleverness, daring, and 
strength of will required to make such money, as well as the extraordi- 
nary sums involved, were sources of admiration and envy to many. 

That Americans hoped to emulate, even in a small way, the suc- 
cesses of these businessmen-heroes is evidenced both in the increasing 
sale of stock and in the newspaper accounts describing many recent rags- 
to-riches stories. America experienced one of the greatest bull markets of 
its history. In 1901 an unprecedented three million shares changed hands 
in one day. According to Mark Sullivan’s classic social history of turn-of- 
the-century America, “a slogan ran through New York, not only down- 
town but in shops, on streetcars, on commuters’ trains: ‘Buy A.O.T. — 
Any Old Thing.’ ” The press featured stories about waiters, dressmakers, 
clerks, and barbers who, by buying certain stocks during their lunch 
hours, found themselves wealthy in a few days. 4 Following the latest 
developments on Wall Street had become a new American pastime. 

Newspaper stories anticipating wireless telegraphy’s limitless com- 
mercial potential harmonized well with the more general, exuberant 
stories describing how to cash in on the new prosperity. Wireless, as a 
promising new technology, might be an excellent investment for those 
wanting to get in on the ground floor of a new business. After Marconi’s 
transatlantic success, one reporter predicted that “cables might now be 
coiled up and sold for junk.” 5 The cable companies were lucrative firms; 
if wireless companies displaced them, then wouldn’t these new busi- 
nesses become extremely valuable? All the eager dreamer had to do was 
recognize what giants Western Union, Bell Telephone, and General Elec- 
tric had become to calculate where wireless might be in the future and 
what fortunes might accrue to those who had had the foresight to invest 
early. 

The bull market was an important feature of the economic environ- 
ment within which the first American wireless companies were estab- 
lished. The Wall Street boom, the rags-to-riches stories, and the excite- 
ment over wireless indicated that the wireless entrepreneur would have 
no trouble selling stock to the public. But competing successfully in the 
marketplace would take more than credulous investors, for, despite the 
prosperous economic times, the entrepreneurs faced important chal- 
lenges in the arena of business strategy. What the popular images of 


• 63 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


overnight financial success failed to point out was that much more than 
luck and delusions of grandeur were required to survive economically in 
the real world of American business. 

Alfred Chandler has emphasized how important attention to com- 
pany structure and strategy were in the early twentieth century for 
major corporations such as General Motors and Du Pont which sought to 
become more efficient and gain a larger share of the market. 6 Structure, 
the organizational design through which an enterprise was adminis- 
tered, and strategy, the determination of the company’s long-term goals, 
were no less critical to the struggling small businessman seeking to estab- 
lish a need for his product and ultimately to compete with already en- 
trenched firms. 

Between 1899 and 1902, Marconi, Fessenden, De Forest, and Stone 
each formed his own wireless company in the United States. Competi- 
tion moved from staging demonstrations and courting the media to build- 
ing corporate structures and articulating corporate strategies. All of the 
inventors had to decide how to organize their companies. What would 
be the hierarchical structure, the chain of command? How would infor- 
mation flow between the board of directors making policy and the lowly 
wireless operators manning the apparatus? How would marketing deci- 
sions be made? Who in the company had the final authority? In addition 
to establishing the company’s structure, no matter how skeletal, the 
inventors had to determine strategy. Obviously, they had to define the 
market for wireless. If wireless was to provide a new, relatively un- 
familiar service, the inventors had to determine how to convince people 
to use it. The inventors also had to figure out how they would generate 
revenue. Day-to-day operations had to be guided by long-term planning 
and goals. Where did the members of the company hope it would be in 
five or ten years? And how did they expect to get it there? Equally 
important was the question of visibility and distinctness: How would the 
Americans avoid looking like latecomers and mere imitators in the public 
eye, and distinguish themselves from Marconi? And how would they 
introduce their wireless systems and persuade Americans to use them? 
To survive as a new business in the age of mergers and monopoly, the 
inventors had to find workable solutions to these problems. 


WHILE MARCONI WAS in America in the fall of 1899, he met John 
Bottomley, a prominent New York attorney with whom he would short- 
ly found the American subsidiary of Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Com- 
pany Limited. Bottomley was no stranger to the world of science and 


• 64 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


invention: his grandfather and brother were both scientists, and he was 
the nephew of Lord Kelvin, the noted British physicist. Kelvin had be- 
come an enthusiastic supporter of Marconi’s work, and he provided 
Marconi with a letter of introduction. 7 Bottomley, successful, fifty-two 
years old, and interested in wireless, was ready to undertake an exciting 
if risky new project. He and his partner, E. H. Moeran, helped Marconi 
establish the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, which 
was chartered in New Jersey in November of 1899 with a capitalization 
of ten million dollars. 8 Bottomley became the new company’s general 
manager, secretary, and treasurer, and Moeran served as general counsel. 
Sometime between 1901 and 1905 they persuaded one of the company’s 
directors, John W. Griggs, a former governor of New Jersey and attorney 
general under President McKinley, to become the company’s president. 
Both before and after his political career, Griggs was a well-known 
corporate attorney. Between 1901 and 1907, he served as a member of 
the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague. For a foreigner who 
initially had few contacts, Marconi had done quite well. Although Bot- 
tomley did not have extensive managerial or entrepreneurial expertise, 
his connections in commercial circles were invaluable. Griggs, with his 
reservoir of political experience and allies, knew how to fight and win 
important legislative battles. 

To appreciate the opportunities and dilemmas facing the American 
Marconi Company, whose operations would be subservient to the plans 
and goals worked out across the Atlantic, we must first review the 
emerging structure and strategy of its parent organization in Britain. For 
Marconi, designing an efficient and respectable organizational frame- 
work had been as important as testing and establishing his technical 
facilities. Orderly proceedings and a clear chain of command were estab- 
lished, unambiguously, from the start. Formalities were important and 
observed. 

When the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Limited was 
established in London in 1897, Jameson-Davis, Marconi’s cousin, became 
the first managing director. 9 The only other officer was Henry W. Allen, 
the company’s secretary. Marconi’s experimental staff consisted of him- 
self and two assistants. As the number of public demonstrations in- 
creased, so did the size of the technical staff, and Davis delegated supervi- 
sion of this staff to a senior engineer. Davis had considered his official role 
in the company temporary and was eager to resign. In August of 1899 he 
was succeeded by a new managing director, Major S. Flood-Page. The 
company acquired a manufacturing plant in Chelmsford, thirty- five miles 
outside of London, in 1898, which was supervised by a works manager. 


■ 65 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


The company was expanding quickly and was somewhat difficult to 
oversee because the experimental staff, including Marconi, traveled so 
much to demonstrate the apparatus. To assist him with his managerial 
chores, Flood-Page hired H. Cuthbert Hall in early 1901 as manager. In 
1900, reportedly against Marconi’s wishes, the board of directors voted 
to change the company’s name to Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Com- 
pany Limited. Changing the company’s name was apt, for one thing was 
crystal clear: this was Marconi’s company. He had formed it with his 
British relatives, and he and his family held a controlling interest in the 
firm. There was never any doubt about whose will was dominant, 
whose say was final. 

By the turn of the century, then, Marconi’s company, though small, 
had several distinct but interrelated departments and a clear hierarchy. 
The company recognized the importance of having managers in super- 
visory but neutral positions. While Marconi was deeply involved in his 
experimental work, he was the driving force behind the company’s 
entrepreneurial activities, often instigating many of the company’s orga- 
nizational and promotional decisions. Yet he was insulated from his 
board, and from many of the routine daily chores and decisions, by his 
managing director. Flood-Page resigned in June 1901 and was replaced 
by Cuthbert Hall, with whom Marconi had a warm and trusting rela- 
tionship. Hall served as the critical communications link between Mar- 
coni and the rest of the company, and surviving correspondence indicates 
that Hall was very conscientious and that the flow of information within 
the firm was excellent. 

Certain aspects of the company’s early structure and strategy de- 
serve special mention. These features were not particularly noteworthy 
or exceptional in and of themselves, except that they were in striking 
contrast to the way business was carried out by Fessenden, De Forest, 
and Stone. The British Marconi Company had regular board meetings, 
which occurred at least quarterly. Although Marconi’s voice was care- 
fully listened to and rarely, if ever, overruled, the inventor did have to get 
his board’s approval for major capital expenditures. Cuthbert Hall wrote 
memoranda periodically summarizing and assessing the company’s sta- 
tus. Marconi diligently participated in many of the managerial activities, 
such as drafting and reviewing contracts, writing and editing company 
circulars and directors’ reports, setting strategic priorities, and reorganiz- 
ing the staff. 10 

Unlike the popular press, which had democratic visions of wireless’s 
potential, Marconi viewed his invention as having only narrow commer- 
cial applications. He missed few opportunities, when out of the public 


■ 66 • 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


eye, to emphasize this point. When commenting on a draft of a directors’ 
report in 1903, Marconi instructed Hall to substitute the phrase “com- 
mercial purposes” for the phrases “the general public” and “a public 
service.” 11 Marconi polished his public edifice as democratic benefactor, 
but, privately, he was a highly competitive businessman whose ultimate 
goal was to establish a monopoly in wireless telegraphy. This goal was 
eventually referred to as the Imperial Wireless Scheme; Marconi meant 
to connect the entire British Empire together by wireless, and he meant 
to own the only company capable of doing so. 

Two entrepreneurial strategies dominated the company, and, while 
complementary in the long run, in the short run they were sometimes at 
odds. One strategy involved offering a completely new service; the 
other, offering a less expensive substitute for a service that already exist- 
ed. Both strategies concentrated on signaling over water. Marconi al- 
ready knew he got much better results over water, where there were no 
obstacles to the signals. Beyond this technical advantage, he also saw 
maritime signaling as his primary market: for him, this was where wire- 
less fit. There was no service at all between ships and the shore, there 
was a clear need for such communication, and, as yet, there was no 
competition. The market seemed ready-made. Marconi also altered his 
earlier statements about not competing with the international cable com- 
panies. By 1901 he was publicly stating his intention to offer an alter- 
native system to that of the cable companies, which he knew were 
viewed as greedy, arrogant monopolies charging exorbitant prices. The 
cables were one of the monopolies Americans, as well as the British, 
loved to hate, and it was clear that Marconi could get customers if he 
could make his service as speedy and reliable as that of the competition. 

The key to overtaking the cable business was successfully spanning 
the Atlantic, and the company believed it imperative that Marconi be the 
first to do so. John Bottomley urged: “The establishment of commercial 
wireless telegraphy across the Atlantic Ocean is absolutely essential to 
the financial success of the Marconi System.” 12 The transatlantic stations 
would provide two main services: they would compete with the cables 
for press dispatches and commercial messages, and they would keep 
ocean liners in touch at all times with both sides of the Atlantic. Revenue 
would come primarily from the charge per message. While the company 
was overly optimistic about when such a commercial service would be 
functioning on a regular basis, it did realize that the service would be 
slow to show a profit. In other words, the transatlantic service repre- 
sented a long-term strategy requiring major initial expenditures and con- 
siderable patience. 


• 67 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


The company also sought to establish a dense and interconnected 
network of short- and medium-range stations aboard commercial ships 
and naval vessels and strings of shore stations to service these ships. The 
Chelmsford works was already manufacturing apparatus, the sale of 
which, it was initially hoped, would return some money to the com- 
pany’s depleted coffers. This short-term strategy, while less grand than 
the transatlantic scheme, was critical. The company wanted to equip as 
many facilities as possible, not only to bring in quicker revenue, but also 
to preempt the market and accustom customers to being members of the 
growing Marconi network. 

The company’s two strategies were interrelated, as the company’s 
overarching goal was to create the most efficient and complete wireless 
organization in the world. The strategies needed to be achieved simul- 
taneously and often required Marconi’s presence at various important 
demonstrations. Thus, when Marconi concentrated on sending the first 
transatlantic signal, he was unable personally to supervise wireless dem- 
onstrations for the British or Italian navies, whose top brass preferred to 
be wooed by Marconi himself rather than by a stand-in. The company 
constantly felt it was fighting against time, trying to beat the competition, 
catch the market at the most propitious moment, and exploit the latest 
publicity coup before the memory of achievement faded. A letter from 
Hall to Marconi written in July 1901 describes one of many such epi- 
sodes: “I believe there is a great naval scare on and that the Admiralty 
officials are very anxious to make the fleet as efficient as possible in the 
shortest possible time. If the scare passes we should probably not get 
such good terms, but we cannot help that, as we should have to sacrifice 
the Poldhu experiments on the chance of getting a good Admiralty 
order.” 13 

The problems of dual development strategies, technical uncertainty, 
and the threat of competition confronting Marconi’s fledgling company 
were exacerbated by the trickiest question of all: how to make wireless 
pay. Electrical communications systems had already been marketed suc- 
cessfully, but one crucial difference confronted Marconi and his com- 
petitors: wireless provided no wires or lines. The service was distributed 
through “the air,” which had always been free to all. Even with tuning, 
anyone with a receiver could listen to messages free of charge. There 
existed no physical means of restricting access to the wireless network. 
Traditional western notions of ownership and property laws were com- 
pletely inadequate in the face of something invisible, intangible, and 
inherently communal like the ether. 

The Marconi Company struggled for years with this revenue prob- 


• 68 • 




Operators learning how to transmit, receive, and read code 
at the Marconi Company’s training institute. 


lem and would not show a profit until 1910. When the company was 
formed in 1897, Marconi had hoped it would become economically 
viable by selling wireless apparatus outright, especially to shipping firms. 
But a customer could not buy equipment only, because the client would 
also need shore stations with which to communicate, and trained oper- 
ators to handle the messages. No customer was prepared to make that 
large an investment in such a new service, especially one for which the 
client might have only an occasional need. The Marconi Company had 
gone to the expense of demonstrating its system to various potential 
buyers only to receive praise but no contracts. 14 So, in 1899, after a 
couple of disappointing years, the Marconi Company changed its policy 
and its structure: the company would now sell equipment to no one. 
Instead, it formed a subsidiary, the Marconi International Marine Com- 
munications Company, an operating company that sold not apparatus, 
but service. The client paid for access to a communications network 
Marconi established and controlled. 15 The company leased equipment 
and a trained operator for a specific period of time. No charge was made 
for individual messages. 


• 69 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


The company’s new policy represented a shrewd shift in financing 
strategy. Leasing encouraged more firms to give wireless a try, and not 
charging for the messages allowed the Marconi Company to skirt certain 
British telegraph monopoly restrictions that prohibited a private com- 
pany from sending telegraphic messages for monetary gain. 16 Also, by 
controlling the sending stations and the operators, the company could 
regulate who would receive messages and who would not. The com- 
pany then established its nonintercommunication rule, certainly its most 
controversial policy. Marconi operators, on ship or shore, would only 
communicate with other Marconi operators. Clients using other apparat- 
us were excluded from the network. Only in the event of emergency 
was this rule suspended. 

By 1900, the Marconi Company had negotiated contracts with sev- 
eral steamship companies, including Cunard, was supplying the Italian 
navy with wireless, and was about to install apparatus aboard twenty- 
six vessels and six coast stations for the Royal Navy. The company then 
secured its most prestigious and potentially most lucrative contract: to 
equip various offices for Lloyd’s of London, the prominent marine insur- 
ance agency with offices throughout the empire, in all of the world’s 
major seaports. Agents at these seaports were to keep Lloyd’s headquar- 
ters informed about the status of insured ships, a task that wireless in- 
stallations would make much easier. The agreement, signed in Sep- 
tember of 1901, provided that Lloyd’s would install only Marconi 
apparatus and use the system exclusively for fourteen years. The contract 
stipulated that the system would neither transmit nor receive messages 
to or from any apparatus produced by any other company. Marconi’s 
insistence on leasing rather than selling the apparatus appeared in his 
written comments on the draft contract. He wrote to Hall, “I note that 
the limitation of Lloyd’s power to buy apparatus does not appear in the 
precis of the agreement, but I presume the point is duly safeguarded in the 
original. It is not without importance.” 17 

This contract provided Marconi with the link he needed to the estab- 
lished international corporate network. With this contract, he had a 
worldwide presence, as well as an affiliation with a British company so 
powerful that the Marconi nonintercommunication policy would have 
real force. If Lloyd’s was using Marconi apparatus, and Marconi apparat- 
us only, and communicating with no others, then shipping firms in- 
terested in or compelled to be part of this network would have to lease 
from Marconi. The agreement represented a major step toward making 
the Marconi system self-perpetuating. 18 

With the Lloyd’s contract secured, the Marconi Company erected 


■ 70 • 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


more shore stations in Europe and established a wireless service on the 
Hawaiian Islands. All operators were under strict orders not to exchange 
messages with operators using rival equipment. To Marconi, this refusal 
to communicate seemed to be the only effective method to control com- 
petition, prevent bankruptcy, and pave the way for monopoly. The Mar- 
coni Company had gone to considerable expense in erecting shore sta- 
tions in Europe and North America. Why should shipowners install any 
sort of apparatus they pleased and then make use of these shore stations 
while contributing nothing to their maintenance? The Marconi Company 
believed it could not afford to allow free intercommunication with any 
other system. By writing the nonintercommunication policy into con- 
tracts such as the one with Lloyd’s, the company provided shipowners a 
powerful incentive to lease Marconi. 

The Marconi Company gave the impression that communication 
with rival apparatus was technically impossible. Through oblique and 
misleading comments to the press, Marconi suggested that different appa- 
ratus, of different design and using different wavelengths, would be 
unable to send to or receive from Marconi stations. He also asserted that 
because his apparatus was now specially tuned, “it would ... be a mere 
accident if [competitors] happened to strike a tune to which the receivers 
at my stations were responsive .” 19 This alleged technical incompatibility 
did not, in fact, exist. But Marconi succeeded in temporarily convincing 
some members of the press of the technical obstacles by insisting that his 
wireless comprised a “system.” The excellence of this system depended 
not only on the superiority of the individual components, but also on the 
arrangement of and adjustments between these components. Company 
statements suggested that a components-oriented approach had been 
tried and abandoned: “We have not found successful attempts to embody 
apparatus or material of foreign origin in installations such as our own, 
where every detail is designed with a view to the efficient working of 
the whole .” 20 Marconi maintained that the Marconi apparatus was far 
superior to any competing equipment, and that by communicating with 
inferior systems, the company would impugn the reputation of wireless 
in general. As Marconi explained, “The policy of the Marconi Company 
has always been that we cannot afford to recognize other systems. . . . 
We cannot be expected to injure our own cause, which we would cer- 
tainly do if we permitted these stations to communicate with vessels and 
stations using our system .” 21 

Marconi was trying through company policy to prevent what he 
could not through technical or legal means. Competitors could easily 
send to, receive from, and interfere with Marconi apparatus. Many of 


■ 71 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


these competitors were transmitting with equipment that infringed on 
Marconi’s patents, particularly the “four sevens” tuning patent. The com- 
pany hoped that its nonintercommunication policy would somewhat 
compensate for its decision not to sue infringers at this time. Cuthbert 
Hall summed up the company’s position on litigation when writing of a 
suit against De Forest in 1904: “I would rather not fight. We have nothing 
to gain commercially or in prestige by a win, and we should lose a little in 
prestige if we lost. . . . Our position now depends far more on contracts 
than on patents . . . (and] although the case covers a wide area we shall 
have overthrown an unimportant adversary. ... I do not see that there is 
any commercial necessity to fight at all.” 22 Litigation was expensive and 
consumed considerable time and energy; forgoing it was a decision that 
again reflected the company’s patience and ability to take a longer term 
view of its business. Marconi was naturally more irritated than others by 
the infringement, and he sometimes found his patent attorneys over- 
cautious. 23 But he generally agreed to wait for the time when the com- 
pany was more financially stable and when a legal strike would be more 
decisive and debilitating to the opposition. Marconi was willing to defer 
gratification, to subordinate pride to sound business policy, and thus he 
exhibited a discipline somewhat unfamiliar to his American counter- 
parts. 

The nonintercommunication policy, the agreements between sever- 
al navies and steamship companies, and the much-publicized Lloyd’s 
contract made the company appear already prosperous. The British and 
American Marconi companies faced ongoing problems managing and 
marketing Marconi’s system, however. The ambitious goal of trying to 
establish an international wireless network resulted in the creation of an 
organization that was often too dispersed and fragmented for a small 
company to oversee properly. The Marconi Company provided its clients 
with wireless operators, and those on board ships were Marconi Com- 
pany employees and not subject to the authority of the steamship com- 
panies. Thus, they often had no direct supervision. Some of these oper- 
ators were slow or lazy, and at least one was caught embezzling from the 
American company. 24 Under such an arrangement, establishing loyalty 
and discipline would take time. 

Also, the company had to convince both individuals and companies 
that wireless was a trustworthy and efficient method of communica- 
tions. A Marconi Company memo recalled the early days when “there 
were only an average of five or six ships fitted with wireless going into 
New York harbour each week and at first, as people had not learned to 
trust wireless communication, . . . most of the messages from passengers 


72 • 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


were of the ‘love and kisses,’ ‘see you soon’ variety.” 25 Bottomley com- 
plained, “Under the present conditions, the business market aboard ship 
is practically limited to first-class passengers for ten or twelve hours 
before the ship reaches its pier, and the same time after leaving. There 
appears to be no practical way of increasing to any extent, messages of 
solicitation and congratulations exchanged between passengers and 
friends ashore.” 26 

The strength of Marconi’s reputation, the shrewdness of his strat- 
egies, the uncertain revenue prospects, and the distance from the parent 
company — all affected the fortunes of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph 
Company of America. Financially, the American company was on its 
own. While its capitalization was based on the value of Marconi’s pa- 
tents, it could expect little monetary assistance from England. Its day-to- 
day operations were under Bottomley’s supervision, and he was not 
expected to bother England with details. Major policy and marketing 
decisions, on the other hand, were out of Bottomley’s control. The British 
company determined how Marconi’s system would be established, pro- 
moted, and operated, and the American company was instructed to 
adhere religiously to these rules. Most decisions had to be cleared 
through, Marconi and the British office first, which was time-consuming, 
inefficient, and irritating to American clients. Bottomley was allowed 
little creativity in adapting or shaping the company’s policies to mesh 
better with the potentially different American circumstances. The British 
connection, then, in some respects, hindered more than helped. The 
American company often felt isolated from and neglected by its distant 
parent, and Marconi’s infrequent and brief visits to New York were not 
sufficiently consoling. 27 

Bottomley reported regularly to London. Like his British colleagues, 
he convened quarterly board meetings. The American company’s struc- 
ture was minimal when compared with that of its parent, consisting 
primarily of Bottomley, Moeran, a man named W. W. Bradfield, who 
appears to have assisted with the managerial and sales duties, and sever- 
al technicians and operators. 

The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, in the early 
years between 1899 and 1904, did little more than give Marconi a corpo- 
rate presence in the United States. It had no network, and its revenues 
were paltry. The center of corporate structure and the place where strat- 
egy was formulated was in England, not America. With Marconi on the 
other side of the Atlantic, the amount of promotional work and advertis- 
ing that could be done in America was minimal. 

Although shares in the company were available, the officers did not 


• 73 ■ 




Wireless operator aboard ship, ca. 1905. 

indulge in the sort of stock promotion that characterized other American 
firms. Pamphlets extolling Marconi’s achievements appeared periodically 
and served as “a guide to those interested in Marconi stocks as an invest- 
ment .” 28 When Moeran received inquiries about Marconi stock, howev- 
er, he responded that such a purchase represented a very long-term 
investment and that no dividends would be paid for years, because all 
available money would go toward improving the apparatus. He advised 
a Mrs. Florence Hoyt of Brooklyn not to invest in Marconi, but instead to 
put her money “into the class of investments which may not be regarded 
as industrial .” 29 It is important to emphasize that the company observed 
certain proprieties when dealing with an eager public, proprieties ig- 
nored by others. 

Bottomley and the other officers tried to use their influence to per- 
suade prominent men or companies to lease apparatus. Bradfield suc- 
ceeded in placing an installation aboard the Gould yacht Niagara, and 
J. P. Morgan and other wealthy clients were approached . 30 But the 
company needed American stations, and the only one being constructed 
was the transatlantic facility at Wellfleet. The company did succeed in 


■ 74 • 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


leasing apparatus to the New York Herald for installation on Nantucket 
and the Nantucket lightship in August 1901. In addition to serving the 
Herald, the Marconi Company also reported the arrival of ships to steam- 
ship companies, which paid five dollars per vessel for the service. 31 

The Nantucket stations provided the company with considerable 
visibility, as Nantucket was often the first point of contact for American- 
bound ships. Thus it was essential that at this station, especially, the 
nonintercommunication policy be rigidly enforced, driving home the 
benefits of leasing Marconi and the costs of not doing so. Moeran advised 
the technicians at Nantucket “not to communicate with ships not having 
Marconi’s apparatus. I will give you a list of vessels.” 32 The New York 
Herald was distinctly displeased with this policy: the newspaper had 
established the station specifically to gather as much news as soon as 
possible for its paper. Nonintercommunication was completely antitheti- 
cal to the Herald’s goals. Moeran had to notify London: “Kemp [Mar- 
coni’s longtime assistant] at Nantucket informs me it will be very difficult 
to prevent operators at Nantucket from sending news of any ship which 
may be within range and that the Herald has thoroughly drilled into 
them to send every scrap of ship news they can get hold of.” 33 The 
Herald’s attorneys notified Moeran of the paper’s refusal to agree to the 
policy and its opinion that its communication with any vessel it chose did 
not violate the Marconi -Herald contract. The nonintercommunication 
policy, which was supposed to further the company’s corporate goals, 
was already undermining its relationship with its first promoter and 
major client. 

The only other ongoing business in which the American company 
participated was the transatlantic news service for steamships. Marconi 
operators were to send news dispatches to the ocean liners, and pas- 
sengers would pay a small amount for the shipboard newspapers. Ship- 
board operators were to report any newsworthy activities to the shore 
stations. But two problems plagued this scheme. Transmission and recep- 
tion were not yet reliable throughout a transatlantic voyage and, as 
Bottomley noted, it was not likely that passengers would pay very much 
for a news service which was offered “but a few hours before reaching 
shore.” 34 In addition, the operators had been trained to send the Morse 
code, not to compose snappy prose. As a result, their stories were routine 
and unimaginative compared to the columns of the Herald or the World. 
When, several years later, the company referred to the shipboard service 
as “a dead letter,” failure was attributed to “the old story, lack of repor- 
torial ability on the part of the operators.” 35 

Bottomley wanted the American company to promote itself more 


• 75 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


aggressively, to demonstrate Marconi apparatus more widely, but he was 
often curtailed by decisions in London. For example, the 1904 World’s 
Fair was to be held in St. Louis, and Governor Francis of Missouri invited 
Marconi to visit the exposition grounds and select a site for an exhibit on 
wireless telegraphy. Marconi, appreciating that the American company 
believed such a display might be beneficial, agreed to go. 36 When the 
company learned that De Forest and a few other companies would have 
wireless booths, however, it decided not to mount an exhibit after all. 
Noting that the potential revenues in such a setting would be split among 
the various competitors, a company officer reported that the projected 
meager returns did not warrant such a display: considering that the 
“stockholders of this Company have purchased their stock upon the 
express understanding that the money thus obtained should be devoted 
to commercial development of the Company and that, the financial con- 
dition of the Company would not warrant an exhibition of the sort 
proposed, for purely spectacular purposes, the Directors decided to make 
no independent exhibit.” 37 Marconi was simply unwilling to gamble on 
such short-term ventures that earned only visibility and lent legitimacy to 
competitors but did not lay the groundwork for future enterprises. For 
Marconi, public demonstrations had to have a larger purpose and had to 
buttress company strategy. 

The American company had to content itself with serving as a cor- 
porate beachhead and basking in Marconi’s glow. Marconi and the British 
company continued to provide one invaluable and as yet unmatched 
asset: occasional but superb advertising for the Marconi system. On De- 
cember 21, 1902, slightly more than a year after he had received the 
letter s from Cornwall, Marconi succeeded in transmitting a full message 
across the Atlantic. The headlines in the New York Times blared: “Mar- 
coni’s Great Triumph” and “The New World Sends Greetings to the Old.” 
The governor general of Canada had sent a message twenty-three hun- 
dred miles to King Edward VII. While Marconi had been preparing the 
stations in Canada and Poldhu for this feat, his assistants had been repair- 
ing the aerial and refining the apparatus at the Wellfleet station, for 
Marconi wanted an American link in the transatlantic network. From 
Wellfleet, in January 1903, Marconi succeeded in transmitting “most 
cordial greetings” from President Roosevelt to King Edward VII. 38 This 
accomplishment made regular transatlantic wireless signaling, a service 
Marconi was eager to inaugurate, seem imminent. Once again he had 
wedded publicity and corporate goals. 

Meanwhile, Bottomley diligently courted the American steamship 
companies and worked to establish shore stations. By 1903, the Ameri- 


• 76 • 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


can company had two stations: the one at Wellfleet, and one at Babylon, 
Long Island, which was little more than a shack used for experiments. 39 
Bottomley urged the British company to establish a station in New York 
City, but to no avail. Bottomley’s mandate was to build as extensive a 
network as possible on the American side of the Atlantic. As a Marconi 
man, he was expected to add outlets to the growing organization, but it 
seemed he was to do this with limited funds and psychic support from 
London. Thus, he was left to try to graft the Marconi system onto the 
organizational networks of other firms and hope for a ripple effect of 
influence and revenues. He succeeded in persuading a group of shipping- 
line owners to contribute to the building and operation of a station at 
Sandy Hook, New Jersey, which would be equipped with Marconi 
apparatus. Writing one year after the Sandy Hook facility was built, 
Bottomley reported that receipts were 50 percent higher than they had 
been the previous year. 40 The American company also sought an agree- 
ment with Western Union, negotiating terms for linking the Marconi 
Company’s primarily offshore system with the telegraph lines. By 1904, 
the two companies had come to terms, and Western Union was provid- 
ing land-line finks for Marconi wireless messages. 41 Bottomley was 
building critical organizational alliances for the American company, al- 
liances with major firms, but he had yet to convince the owners of the 
hundreds of smaller ships operating along America’s coast to lease Mar- 
coni apparatus. Other than the major shipping lines, then, much of the 
American market remained unserved. 

Without Marconi’s regular presence to motivate the staff, and with- 
out a clear sense of entrepreneurial purpose — of specific goals originating 
on this side of the Atlantic — morale and discipline in the American com- 
pany wavered. Bottomley wrote to Cuthbert Hall complaining bitterly 
of staff problems: “ The chief fault with all these men is that they seem to 
consider the business as a sort of plaything whilst I am, unfortunately 
perhaps, terribly in earnest.” 42 Although he realized that telegraph men 
were known for being “wild,” he was still unprepared for the “careless 
living, ‘women and wine’ practised by those high up in this company.” 
The men’s “inattention to business” so distressed him that he fired several 
of them, although he was “half inclined to clear out the whole force.” 43 

Between 1899 and 1904, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company 
of America showed potential for both success and failure. The company 
remained something of an afterthought to Marconi, who viewed it as an 
obedient and pliant follower of British policy and not as a company 
possessing its own strategic initiative geared expressly for the American 
market. As a result, the American company, while in no immediate 


• 77 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


danger of floundering, nonetheless lacked an aggressive approach for 
defining and capturing the American market. Marconi’s major contracts 
were still with European clients. However, while the American com- 
pany was small and possessed few assets, it was an agent of the growing 
Marconi network, which seemed likely to increase in size and influence. 
The leasing and nonintercommunication policies devised by the parent 
company represented a determined and coherent strategy for generating 
revenue, enticing clients, and discouraging competition. 

Despite its financial and managerial frailties, the American company 
was still a Marconi company, headed by an internationally renowned 
inventor who combined promotional flamboyance with a respect for 
organizational orderliness. Marconi’s ability to devise a successful mar- 
keting approach stemmed partly from talent and partly from fate. His 
British heritage and his coming of age in the 1890s had placed him in a 
strategic location at a fortuitous time: he was a member of a worldwide 
empire built on maritime dominance which was still at the peak of its 
power and influence. The necessity of communicating over large bodies 
of water had stimulated cable construction since the mid-nineteenth 
century. This was a vast empire that had holdings on nearly every conti- 
nent and that was sustained by a burgeoning navy and merchant ma- 
rine — and major gaps existed in its communications network. By in- 
terlocking his system with those of other British companies that already 
possessed an international presence, Marconi could gain a worldwide 
market much more easily than his American counterparts. 

Marconi’s success as an entrepreneur was also based on his keen 
appreciation of how his public performances and his private negotiations 
had to complement each other. He knew he had two different but related 
realms to conquer: public perceptions as shaped by the press, and impor- 
tant sectors of the commercial world where the clients were. Paying 
customers would be less credulous than newspaper reporters and would 
want assurances about the invention’s reliability and range. They would 
have to be convinced by representatives of the company that they 
needed wireless. But Marconi understood that well-timed newspaper 
coverage played a critical supporting role: headlines and contracts often 
went hand in hand. They were directed toward the same corporate 
goals, and each one reinforced the other. 

Marconi recognized the most important role the press played in the 
wireless scenario: it was his major advertiser. He had learned by 1899 
that the press was eager for his success and would accept his claims, if 
presented properly, enthusiastically and without question. In other 
words, it would provide free advertising while conferring a credibility 


• 78 ■ 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


and legitimacy a promotional pamphlet or paid advertisement never 
could. The press had told the public what an advertisement, had Marconi 
taken one out, might have: that he was the first and the best, and that 
America needed his product. The press had also described how the prod- 
uct worked, why America would be better off because of it, and what its 
applications and uses were. Press coverage, like the best advertising, 
was both informative and persuasive. Headlines, serving as a supposedly 
disinterested voice while praising Marconi and his apparatus, reinforced 
and elaborated on the Marconi Company’s claims, providing valuable 
reassurance to potential clients. 

Finally, Marconi understood the role that charm, courtesy, and social 
station played in building a business. Marconi’s upper-class background 
provided entrepreneurial advantages. His family had influential friends 
and relations who in turn knew other well-placed people, and this web 
of contacts provided Marconi with access to social and economic circles 
closed to his American middle-class rivals. Also, his upbringing had given 
him a confidence and ease when mixing with the rich and famous which 
would be very much to his benefit. Wherever he went, from Italy to 
Newfoundland, he called on the local head of state, both as a courtesy 
and to further the aims of the company. He appreciated the business value 
of establishing friendly, informal relations with important people. He 
occasionally joked about this practice, as when he wrote that he had 
been meeting “rather often” with Alice Roosevelt, the president’s 
daughter, “always in the interest of the company, of course.” 44 Meeting 
and disarming influential potential allies was not, for Marconi, the tor- 
tuous or anxiety-producing process it may have been for men of a differ- 
ent class or background. 

Marconi’s considerable personal talents and his company’s exclu- 
sionary business policies posed major challenges for Fessenden, De For- 
est, and Stone. Their technical alternatives had to be complemented by 
entrepreneurial innovations, as well. Could the Americans lure potential 
customers away from Marconi? What business policies would the Amer- 
icans establish which would generate revenues and sustain their fledg- 
ling companies? Would they be able to rival Marconi’s exploitation of the 
press? While the Marconi network as a whole was establishing its 
hegemony, its American subsidiary was small. Given the major structural 
faults plaguing the Marconi Company of America during its early years, it 
is amazing that this company found itself in a preeminent position by 
1912. That it did so is, in part, a testimony to the power of the parent 
company’s strategy, which was sustained by the entrepreneurial skills of 
Marconi and his managers. But the ultimate success of the American 


■ 79 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 

Marconi Company is also evidence of the truly maladroit handling of 
business affairs by Marconi’s American competitors. 


WHEN REGINALD FESSENDEN began experimenting with wireless 
telegraphy for the Weather Bureau in 1900, Bureau Chief Willis Moore 
suggested that if his wireless experimentation was successful, Fessenden 
should “permanently join the Weather Bureau and superintend the daily 
work of manufacturing and using the apparatus, especially in case no 
company is formed for its commercial development.” 45 Early in 1902, 
however, Fessenden initiated negotiations with several independent in- 
vestors to form his own wireless company, and his extracurricular busi- 
ness dealings piqued government officials. The secretary of agriculture 
officially stated that Fessenden had been suspended for “disobedience of 
orders and insubordination.” Fessenden claimed that he had good reasons 
for wanting to leave the bureau. He charged that Moore had tried to 
pressure him into turning over a half-share in all his patents. Fessenden 
wrote a letter to President Roosevelt complaining that Moore had want- 
ed to go to the Patent Office and swear out some of the patents in his own 
name, and that Moore had warned Fessenden that lack of cooperation 
would compel him to recommend that the Weather Bureau switch to the 
Marconi system. 46 On Fessenden’s refusal to comply, Moore dismissed all 
but one of Fessenden’s assistants and began discrediting Fessenden and 
his system. Fessenden left the Weather Bureau in August 1902. 47 

Meanwhile, Fessenden’s patent attorney, Darwin S. Wolcott, ar- 
ranged a meeting between the inventor and two wealthy men from 
Pittsburgh, Thomas H. Given and Hay Walker, Jr. Given had begun his 
career as an errand boy in the Farmers Deposit National Bank and had 
worked his way up to president of the bank. Walker was president of his 
own manufacturing concern that produced soap and candles. The three 
men organized the National Electric Signalling Company (NESCO) in 
November 1902. Unfortunately, we know little about what motivated 
Given and Walker or why they were willing to invest so heavily in 
Fessenden’s inventions. All we know is that they came to believe that 
wireless, and Fessenden’s system in particular, was going to make money 
quickly. They provided Fessenden with a salary and living expenses, and 
they retained the option to buy a 55 percent share of his patents. They 
refused to sell stock to the public, apparently meaning to retain as much 
control and share in potential profits as possible. 

From the beginning, the relationship between Fessenden and his 
backers was flawed, but early enthusiasm and visions of quick profits 


• 80 • 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


obscured the inherent problems. Fessenden, convinced of his technical 
talents and regarding each invention with a self-satisfied vanity, was a 
strong-willed and proud man struggling to defer to the business decisions 
of his backers. His inventions provided the raison d’etre for the company, 
yet there would be no company without Given’s and Walker’s money. 
Walker and Given, successful businessmen and equally strong-willed, 
fully expected to be in charge of managing and promoting Fessenden’s 
inventions. Yet they knew little about electrical communications, and 
they supervised NESCO on the side, in addition to performing their 
regular duties with their respective firms. As a result, they were unable 
to give the company the constant attention it needed, and they failed to 
understand fully many of the basic economic and technical dilemmas 
facing the fledgling firm. Their authority over the company’s strategy, 
however, was final. These different orientations, and each man’s sense 
that without his contributions the others would be lost, led to division 
and resentment instead of a healthy partnership. Throughout the com- 
pany’s history, one basic question was never resolved to everyone’s 
satisfaction: Whose company was it, the investors’ or the inventor’s? 
Ultimately, this lack of clarity over whether money or technical expertise 
entitled one to corporate leadership brought NESCO to an internal im- 
passe. Pride on both sides repeatedly played too large, unnecessary, and 
debilitating a role in NESCO’s business proceedings. 

NESCO’s organizational structure was informal and spare. Fes- 
senden served both as general manager and technical adviser. Thus, he 
was in charge of experimentation, promotion, and management, and he 
did not have the assistance of a trusted and experienced manager to 
whom he could delegate tasks and who could help neutralize exchanges 
between the inventor and his backers. Nor did Given and Walker hire a 
salesman they trusted, someone smooth, persistent, and patient, to pro- 
mote the company. Fessenden was enthusiastic and believed completely 
in his system, but he was no manager and no salesman. 

Although Fessenden was a prodigious memo writer and correspon- 
dent, written assessments of the company’s progress were not regularly 
exchanged between backers and inventor. Fessenden wrote extensive 
position papers when he was especially agitated about a specific contract 
or piece of legislation, but no one was in charge of standing back from the 
company’s day-to-day operation and rendering a summary and evalua- 
tion of successes and failures (as Cuthbert Hall did for Marconi). Nor 
were there the quarterly company meetings that provided Marconi’s 
company with a sense of orderliness and continuity. 

NESCO began its operations guided by several conflicting strategies. 


• 81 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


all of them short term and ad hoc, and several of them self-destructive. 
Because the three men never agreed on a long-term strategy or on how 
revenue would be generated, they spent their money and energy on 
competing schemes. Fessenden wanted to sell apparatus outright, and he 
devoted considerable time and energy to trying to win contracts with 
foreign governments, the U.S. Signal Corps, and the navy. Given and 
Walker were more interested in establishing overland operating com- 
panies, although who the customers for such a service would be re- 
mained unclear. 

As soon as NESCO was formed, Given and Walker agreed to ad- 
vance thirty thousand dollars to erect, equip, and operate three stations, 
two on the southeastern coast of Virginia, at the mouth of the Chesa- 
peake Bay, and one in Bermuda. Fessenden hired two assistants, Pannill 
and Roberts, and in the spring of 1903 the three men began work on the 
Old Point Comfort, Virginia, station, which was just outside Hampton, 
where the James River and the Chesapeake converge. The company 
started out, then, focusing on signaling over water. This was what Fes- 
senden had done with the Weather Bureau and what he knew best. They 
erected shacks and aerials and installed the apparatus. The company then 
learned that the British government’s provisions granting the cable com- 
panies a monopoly over all telegraphic communication prevented 
NESCO from establishing the Bermuda station. Just who was responsi- 
ble for this critical oversight remains unclear, but Fessenden, who had 
worked in Bermuda and whose wife was from the island, may have 
overestimated the influence of his contacts there and assured Given and 
Walker that the license would pose no problem. This was an unpromising 
start for the company, but, undeterred, NESCO decided on a new tactic. 
It would establish headquarters in Washington, D.C., and erect a station 
in town capable of demonstrating Fessenden’s system to various govern- 
ment attaches and people influential in American government circles. 
The staff was increased again, with H. J. Glaubitz as construction en- 
gineer and seven additional technical assistants, some of whom were 
also operators. The station was to be the first of three — in Washington, 
Philadelphia, and New York, with the Philadelphia station serving as the 
intermediate relay. 

NESCO, with this plan, had significantly shifted its technical and 
marketing goals and was tackling an extremely ambitious project: over- 
land transmission between three heavily populated areas in direct com- 
petition with the telegraph and telephone. By November 1903, Fes- 
senden was reporting successful signaling between the New York station 
(which was located in Jersey City) and the Philadelphia station (in Col- 


• 82 ■ 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 



Early NESCO wireless station with aerials, ca. 1903. 


lingswood, New Jersey). 48 Later that winter, communication was ex- 
tended to Washington. NESCO would both sell apparatus and establish 
this first overland American wireless service. Company correspondence 
gives no indication of when or how NESCO expected to promote this 
service, or how it planned to make it more attractive than the telegraph 
or telephone. 

Fessenden, it turns out, was opposed to trying to inaugurate service 
between New York and Philadelphia. He thought the company should 
prove itself in less congested and risky areas, such as Baltimore and 
Norfolk. 49 While Fessenden regarded the New York- Washington tests 
as experiments assessing the strengths and weaknesses of his apparatus, 
Given and Walker believed they had the foundation for a regular com- 
mercial service between the three metropolitan areas. Given and Walk- 
er, who had invested in four wireless stations and were eager to see a 
return, insisted that the New York— Washington “line” be opened for 
commercial business as soon as possible. This Fessenden agreed to in 
August of 1904. In October, Fessenden reported to his backers that he 
had sent a message from Washington to New York and back in seventeen 


• 83 




INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


minutes. 50 After this, reference to these stations disappears from com- 
pany correspondence, apparently eclipsed by grander and often unrelat- 
ed projects. We do not know whether satisfactory overland communica- 
tion remained unattainable, whether there were no clients, or whether 
Given and Walker simply abandoned the project in favor of a more 
attractive one. We do know that by 1904, Given and Walker had spent at 
least one hundred thousand dollars on stations and apparatus that were 
not bringing in revenue. 

One reason work on these overland stations may have stopped was 
the receipt of an attractive offer from General Electric. In December 
1903, Ernst Berg of General Electric approached Fessenden and sug- 
gested that NESCO contract with G.E. for two wireless stations, one in 
Lynn, Massachusetts, and the other in Schenectady, New York, a distance 
of approximately four hundred miles. There is insufficient evidence to 
explain how or why G.E. decided to experiment with the invention at 
this time. Earlier in the year, De Forest had submitted his system for trial 
at the Lynn works, but he had been unable to get signals through to 
Schenectady. 51 General Electric officials already knew of Fessenden’s 
work from his early orders for high-frequency alternators. Fessenden 
responded that he was interested in such a proposition, and, with charac- 
teristic presumption, said that while NESCO’s standard price for two 
such stations was sixteen thousand dollars, G.E. would receive a 25 
percent discount and pay only ninety-eight hundred dollars. Berg wrote 
back saying that G.E. officials had “decided to drop the matter at the 
present time, in view of the rather high price and also the uncertainty of 
the system.” Fessenden promptly halved his estimates on aerial and labor 
costs. 52 

In March 1904, E. W. Rice, third vice-president of G.E., made Fes- 
senden a generous offer that nearly matched Fessenden’s original pro- 
posal. G.E. would provide the buildings for the apparatus, the transfor- 
mers, and the power source, and would pay NESCO ten thousand 
dollars for the sending and receiving apparatus and the aerials. G.E. 
would pay NESCO nothing, however, until the stations were operating 
regularly and successfully during business hours for thirty consecutive 
business days. Fessenden was to guarantee thirty-five words per minute. 
G.E. also included a stiff interference clause in the contract which pro- 
vided: “If the apparatus should fail, through interference, repayment of 
the purchase price shall be made exactly as if the use of the apparatus 
were prohibited or interfered with by patent litigation, i.e., if inter- 
ference should occur within two years . . . you will return 80% of the 
purchase price, three years 60%, four years 40%, five years 20%, no 


• 84 ■ 


The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


refund to be made after five years’ use.” 53 The contract was signed in 
July 1904, and Fessenden assured G.E. that the stations would be operat- 
ing by September 15. The G.E. contract initially heartened Given and 
Walker, who saw the large and well-established electrical firm as the 
perfect sort of client for a company like NESCO. But the G.E. connection 
also scared them. Walker wrote to Fessenden that he and Given were 
“more afraid of the G.E. Company than almost any other interest. . . . 
We think you should be very careful not to allow them around getting 
any information on [our] work. It would be untold injury to us if, when 
we are ready to do business, they would announce that they had a 
system of their own.” 54 Dreams of a profitable contract or even merger 
were interrupted by the nightmare of industrial espionage and theft. 

Because G.E. was slow in providing NESCO with the buildings and 
transformers, experimentation did not begin until January 1905, when 
A. A. Isbell, the NESCO technician, worked in —15° temperatures to 
ready the Schenectady station. Although by February, Isbell and G.E. 
officials had listened to Marconi’s Cape Cod station, the Schenectady and 
Lynn stations never established regular communication with each other. 
Isbell complained of interference caused by others testing in the area, and 
also commented that there were “a lot of strange noises in the works.” 
“Every now and then,” he said, “I get a screech in the ’phone like the 
wail of a dying soul.” The technicians found that transmitting during the 
day was impossible and that at night the signals would be alternately 
weak and strong. Isbell complained: “At times I can hear him with the 
’phone two inches from my head, then out he goes.” He began to suspect 
that the current G.E. was providing was erratic, and Fessenden decided 
that NESCO should install its own rotary transformers independent of 
the line voltage. But the problem had been discovered too late, and by 
August of 1905, G.E. had deemed the eight-month experiment a failure 
and canceled the contract. Isbell reported: “I have been told by a promi- 
nent official here that some strong Western Union influence has been 
exerted to get us out of here.” 55 No evidence has been found to confirm 
or deny Isbell’s report, but it was not an unreasonable suspicion. 

Fessenden protested the cancellation of the contract, and M. F. West- 
over, secretary of G.E., granted Fessenden six more months, until June 
15, 1906, to have the stations operating. Fessenden again failed to estab- 
lish regular communication, and G.E. again canceled the contract. Fes- 
senden suggested that NESCO continue experimenting at the Lynn and 
Schenectady stations, and when they were improved, G.E. could buy 
them. Westover turned down this offer for various reasons and said, 
cryptically, “We would rather state these to you verbally than in writ- 


• 85 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


ing.” Westover tried to mollify Fessenden by promising, “If any time in 
the future the art shall have reached such a stage that commercially 
practical operation is assured we shall be ready to consider the question 
of a contract between us.” 56 As with the proposed New York- Wash- 
ington line, NESCO had invested considerable time and money in a 
speculative venture that failed to produce revenue, visibility, or prestige. 
Once again, Fessenden had overestimated what his apparatus could do. 

At the same time that NESCO was struggling to establish overland 
wireless communications service, Fessenden was hustling to sell appa- 
ratus to anyone who might be interested. Fie advertised his apparatus in 
Electrical World, and succeeded in having the journal publish an article 
about him and the company. He advised Walker, “I expect to have some- 
thing of this sort published every few weeks.” 57 If he read of a foreign 
government having difficulty with the cable companies, he contacted the 
country’s embassy and arranged an interview to suggest wireless as an 
alternative. 58 He urged Given and Walker to hire a salesman who used to 
work for Edison: “As the man seems a hustler, and it would appear to be 
absolutely necessary for us to have someone to get out on the road to see 
people, since it is impossible to handle business of this kind from a desk, I 
am engaging him.” 59 This salesman tried to sell Fessenden’s apparatus to 
corporate clients such as B. F. Goodrich and Swift and Company on the 
basis that they could use it to keep their regional plants in constant 
communication. 60 Fessenden, his visions of expansion fired by a recent 
visit to the Columbian embassy, warned his backers “We can never 
handle big business successfully until we have representatives all 
over.” 61 

By October 1904, Fessenden was bragging to Walker, “Business 
seems coming in thick and heavy. I am getting results from all of the 
parties I wrote to in the spring of the year.” 62 He had approached clients 
from Australia, Japan, and Russia, and had received a contract to install 
apparatus along the Amazon in Brazil. 63 There is no evidence in the 
company correspondence suggesting how, or if, NESCO expected to 
oversee such farflung stations once they were installed. 

Two of NESCO’s most counterproductive policies were its method 
of setting prices and its stance on patents. In making decisions in these 
two critical areas. Given, Walker, and Fessenden relied less on good 
business sense and more on egocentrism and personal pride. Walker and 
Given, in their calculations of how much to charge a client for overland 
service, came up with the figure of two hundred dollars per mile. They 
wanted to recoup their research and development costs quickly, and to 
show a profit. A colleague in New York delicately told Walker that the 


86 • 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


price was far too high and would scare off potential clients. 64 The price 
quoted the U.S. Navy for Fessenden apparatus was ten thousand dollars 
per set, a preposterously high figure. A strong sense of entitlement — that 
NESCO should get such prices simply because it deserved to — runs 
throughout Walker’s letters. Fessenden also believed the apparatus was 
worth that much, but he was willing to be more flexible. He reminded 
his backers that De Forest was offering similar apparatus, some of which 
infringed on Fessenden’s patents, for fifteen hundred dollars, and that to 
compete, NESCO was going to have to reduce its prices. Once the navy 
had become committed to NESCO apparatus, Fessenden reasoned, then 
the company could raise the price, citing recent improvements as the 
cause. Fessenden wanted navy contracts and was loath to “undo all the 
good work [the company had] done with the Navy up to date” — mean- 
ing the many hours of demonstrations, explanations, and persuasion. 65 
But he was overruled by Given and Walker, who insisted that they and 
they alone would “furnish all quotations.” 66 

Fessenden was willing to swallow his pride in the marketplace, an 
arena in which decisions were not always final and in which the stakes, 
for him, were less important. But in the courtroom, where priority of 
invention would be established, where the considered opinion of a 
judge, not the vagaries of the market, would establish the “truth,” Fes- 
senden’s pride preened itself. It was where whatever business sense he 
possessed deserted him. De Forest had copied Fessenden’s electrolytic 
detector and was offering it to the navy at cut-rate prices. Fessenden was 
outraged by such piracy and in 1904 determined to sue. The theft was 
flagrant and Fessenden’s response understandable. But NESCO was only 
two years old, was not yet bringing in any revenue, and suing was 
expensive and time-consuming. Nonetheless, Fessenden took De Forest 
to court three times over this infringement, and in 1905 won an injunc- 
tion against De Forest’s production of the detector. The company spent 
between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand dollars defeating De 
Forest in the courts; it would have cost far less to beat him in the mar- 
ketplace. But Fessenden sued even when a victory would bring only 
psychological returns. He claimed priority over Marconi’s magnetic de- 
tector and took the case to court in 1904. Fessenden was not even using 
Marconi’s receiver, and NESCO had little to gain from this action. 
Eventually, in 1907, Fessenden lost the case. 67 Such an expenditure of 
time and money fit into no long- or short-term strategy; it only sapped a 
company that had yet to win a major contract. 

By June of 1904, Given and Walker had latched onto a new scheme. 
“It seems to us,” Walker wrote, “that there is no way that it would pay 


• 87 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


so well or that would be so easy to promote as to follow out the plan of 
small companies and an exchange of stock with a parent company. . . . 
Suppose, for instance, that we formed companies by states.” 68 Walker 
and Given were not sure how tolls or jurisdiction would be determined 
or how the “internal business” of such a company would be handled, but 
they thought their franchising idea excellent. Fessenden was less enthusi- 
astic. In addition to the overwhelming coordination problems, his biggest 
concern was finding “good men” to oversee the regional companies. He 
warned that incompetent men would “make any amount of trouble” for 
NESCO, damaging the reputation of the company and wireless, as 
well. 69 Once again, Fessenden and his backers had very different in- 
stincts about how to manage and promote wireless. 

Walker and Given then scaled down the scope of their plan and 
determined to make NESCO an operating company so attractive and, 
they hoped, so threatening that one of the major communications com- 
panies such as Western Union or Bell Telephone would buy them out. But 
to make their company sufficiently alluring, they needed a dramatic 
achievement. Transatlantic service would provide the appropriate bait. 
Walker and Given decided late in 1904 not to sell any more equipment; 
all energy and money was now to be devoted to “getting to the other 
side.” 70 This shift in strategy trapped Fessenden between frustrating 
disappointment and visions of glory, and confounded his technical vanity. 
He wanted to sell his apparatus and have as many clients as possible 
using it. He was convinced his wireless system was the best and would 
ultimately displace all others. To forgo all sales, especially those he had 
worked so hard to realize, struck him as both unfair and entrepre- 
neurially absurd. On the other hand, he now had a chance to succeed 
where Marconi had failed. Despite his transatlantic signal and messages, 
Marconi had yet to establish regular, reliable service across the ocean. 
The challenge tapped Fessenden’s reservoirs of competitive energy and 
technical pride. Fessenden later testified that he was completely opposed 
to the endeavor from the start: “The attempt to work across the Atlantic, 
a distance of 3000 miles, at a time when we had never worked more 
than 120 miles and had great opportunities for selling sets at a large profit 
for naval and other uses, was also decided upon against my advice and 
carried out in spite of my protests.” 71 But the zeal with which Fessenden 
threw himself and those around him into the project belies the fervency 
of that disavowal. 

The site selected for the American terminus of the service was Brant 
Rock, Massachusetts, just south of Plymouth. The European site was 
Machrihanish, Scotland. In November 1904, Walker urged Fessenden to 


• 88 ■ 


The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


complete the stations as quickly as possible; while Fessenden set up the 
apparatus. Walker would begin applying for licenses. As with the ill- 
fated Bermuda connection, NESCO sought to install the equipment be- 
fore determining whether the company would be able to get a license. 
Fessenden apparently hoped that he would still be able to sell apparatus 
if major orders came in; he was mistaken. Walker and Given insisted that 
he not discuss sales with anyone; from now on, they were only in- 
terested in selling the whole system. “We do not care to peddle a 20-foot 
lot out of a plan but sell the whole acreage,” wrote Walker. 72 

In July of 1905, Fessenden, his wife, and his son moved to the nearly 
completed Brant Rock installation, which became NESCO’s experimen- 
tal headquarters and main wireless station. Fessenden was that much 
farther away from his backers, who had, by their insistence on the 
transatlantic work, inadvertently given Fessenden much more autonomy 
and latitude. Transatlantic signaling was a real challenge, demanding a 
level of technical rigor, power, and precision that NESCO had yet to 
achieve. It was also a major investment, and Fessenden believed that 
Given and Walker, who had insisted on the goal, should not now be- 
grudge him whatever monies he needed to fulfill their mandate. 

Once Fessenden moved to Brant Rock, which was in fact his person- 
al industrial research lab, the legacy of his years with Edison became 
more apparent. He became even more dogmatic about certain technical 
designs, and he spared little expense realizing them. His technical perfec- 
tionism reached full expression. Fessenden had not had to scrimp at the 
Weather Bureau or at the universities, and the stakes there had not been 
very high; he certainly had no intention of scrimping now. Walker and 
Given might complain, for example, about the already large amounts of 
money Fessenden was paying to General Electric to design his high- 
frequency alternator, but Fessenden could respond by saying that if 
NESCO really wanted to cross the Atlantic, the company had to have the 
alternator; no other device would do. How could Given and Walker 
respond? They knew little about the technology and had to trust their 
inventor. By May 1906, Given and Walker had put $519,100, an extraor- 
dinary amount, into NESCO, and they had to give voice to their frustra- 
tions. 73 Accordingly, they admonished Fessenden when the extrava- 
gance was one they could identify. Wrote Walker, “We notice this 
pamphlet came to us in a fine large linen envelope, costing ten or twelve 
cents, with five cents postage, when an ordinary wrapper with one cent 
postage would have brought it just as well. It is small things like this that 
give us an impression that your shop is run in an extravagant manner.” 74 

By 1905, NESCO was operating in a private, and sometimes secret, 


■ 89 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


fashion, concentrating on the transatlantic goal. In his lab, Fessenden also 
continued to experiment with his wireless telephone and the transmis- 
sion of the human voice, making considerable progress. Now there were 
no sales and no promotion. The hope sustaining Given and Walker was 
their plan to sell NESCO to the highest bidder and cash in on the merger 
movement. It is not at all clear why Given and Walker thought a major 
communications firm would be interested in a transatlantic wireless 
system. They knew very little about the industry; in 1904, in fact, Walker 
wrote to Fessenden asking for information on the capitalization and 
earnings of Bell Telephone and Western Union. 75 These were not men 
who knew or understood their potential clients very well. 

NESCO did not yet offer the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company 
of America any competition. After three years in business, each one 
costing Given and Walker at least $125,000, the company had settled on 
the riskiest technical venture it could have tackled, with the hopes of 
selling its system to companies that had not demonstrated a clear or 
immediate need for their product. Fessenden was by now well known in 
engineering circles as well as by those who read the technical journals, 
but he had not conquered the popular press as Marconi had. The man 
who had worked as one of Edison’s assistants, and had picked up several 
of Edison’s bad habits, had missed important lessons on skillful promotion 
and marketing. 

Fessenden possessed little sense of the dual roles, the public and the 
private, the entrepreneur had to play. He either failed to grasp or deliber- 
ately rejected the way personality affected media coverage and sales. 
Unlike Marconi, Fessenden showed little interest in using charm, humor, 
and modesty, however false, to promote his apparatus. He did not culti- 
vate a public image. This inability or unwillingness to master the connec- 
tions between personality and entrepreneurial success came to have a 
corrosive effect on Fessenden over the years. 

In fact, of all the inventors who acted in the early wireless story, 
Fessenden seems to have been the most changed by the experience. He 
has been described by historians as choleric and abrasive, but these 
qualities were not dominant when he entered the field in 1899. 76 Tt is 
true that he had always had a bombastic streak, claiming he had invented 
more than he had and asserting that his apparatus could achieve much 
more than it could. He wrote to Marconi in 1899 claiming credit for 
Marconi’s Herald contract to report the yacht races; it was he, Fessenden 
asserted, who had suggested that the newspaper contact Marconi. 77 In 
December of that year he sent a press release to the New York Times 
announcing that he had invented a receiver two thousand times more 


• 90 • 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


sensitive than the coherer. 78 As his inventions became more revolution- 
ary, his egotism became even more exaggerated, and it was a charac- 
teristic many potential customers found increasingly unappealing. Yet 
Fessenden began his work with NESCO in 1903 eager to please his 
backers, promote his system, and, in his words, “give the people what 
they want.” 79 When, instead of the positive reinforcement he was ac- 
customed to receiving in the lab or in the classroom, he confronted 
skepticism from clients and resistance from his backers (who he believed 
knew little about the technology), Fessenden became increasingly disillu- 
sioned, bitter, and yes, abrasive. 

In sum, NESCO was a company headed by a gifted electrical en- 
gineer and two successful businessmen, all three honest and earnest, 
with several ideas on how to make wireless pay. But they never settled 
on one strategy that would push the Fessenden system, sustain the com- 
pany’s growth, and bring in revenue. Given and Walker were impatient 
and fickle: if one approach failed to bring in significant revenue within six 
to twelve months, the two men would devise a new short-term strategy, 
often at odds with its predecessor. Their impatience was aggravated by 
Fessenden’s tendency to exaggerate the capabilities of his apparatus; 
their fickleness was exacerbated by his inconsistency. One week he 
would assert that his equipment was fully operable, the next remind 
Given and Walker that it was still in the experimental stage. Unlike 
Marconi, who was painstakingly building a worldwide organization, 
NESCO’s owners seemingly shied away from the prospect of organiza- 
tion building. As Fessenden and his assistants worked on the Brant Rock 
and Machrihanish stations in 1905, Given and Walker pinned their hopes 
on the transatlantic coup they expected would bring them the offer of 
their dreams. 


AFTER LEE DE FOREST demonstrated his system during the yacht races 
of 1901, he established the Wireless Telegraph Company, headquartered 
in Jersey City. This was a company in name only; except for De Forest, it 
had no assets. De Forest was nearly broke. According to his diary, he 
began a long and fruitless campaign of trying to interest members of the 
business community and financial promoters in his invention. On De- 
cember 1, 1901, he wrote in the voice of the still hungry but persistent 
outcast, “I have approached some twenty-five parties to many of whom I 
trust to be able to point out, someday, the enormous folly of their tim- 
orous mistake.” He complained about “the strange lethargy and skep- 
ticism of the public in wireless telegraphy as an investment.” 80 By the 


• 91 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


public he meant the Wall Street financiers, who believed Marconi had too 
formidable a lead, who did not share the journalistic optimism over 
wireless, or who were unconvinced by De Forest’s proposals and man- 
ner. After all, he was relatively unknown and fresh out of school, and he 
had no track record on inventing or engineering. But in January 1902, 
after months of hustling, De Forest found an ally: “Of all the many men 
approached in all these months, despite the success of repeated demon- 
strations, but one man of means has been found with faith in the scheme 
equal to my own.” 81 That man, whom he met through a broker, was 
Abraham White. 

White’s avarice was whetted by Marconi’s transatlantic feat. White 
became convinced that wireless could help him amass a fortune, and in 
February 1902 he and De Forest incorporated a new company, the Amer- 
ican De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company, of which White became 
president. 82 White was not a businessman; in fact, he was a somewhat 
disreputable character. He was already notorious in financial circles as a 
speculator and con man, and he was eager to take advantage of the 
prevailing bull market. Contrary to the conservatism in the business 
community, White recognized that the public was captivated by the 
notion of wireless and ready to translate that fascination into stock pur- 
chases. Wireless, to White, was no different from a patent medicine. 
White would convince Americans to invest in De Forest by staging flam- 
boyant demonstrations and publicity stunts. The proceeds from the stock 
sales would augment both men’s bank accounts, although White made 
sure he benefited more than De Forest. Little research and development 
was envisioned. The company had no structure or formal proceedings, 
and its only strategy was to sell as much stock as it could, and as quickly 
as possible. De Forest’s title was vice-president and scientific director, 
and he started out earning twenty dollars a week, double the salary he 
could expect to earn elsewhere in the electrical industry. 83 The only 
other employees were stock salesmen and technicians. 

White’s business strategy, then, was to use wireless as the basis of a 
huge stock-promotion scam. In the “stockjobbing” that ensued over the 
next three years, De Forest was a willing accomplice. Of his own noble 
role in bringing the advantages of wireless to mankind, De Forest wrote 
in 1902, “Soon, we believe, the suckers will begin to bite. Fine fishing 
weather, now that the oil fields have played out. ‘Wireless’ is the bait to 
use at present. May we stock our string before the wind veers and the 
sucker shoals are swept out to sea.” 84 Fame and fortune seemed within 
reach. 

De Forest and White were enterprising publicity men, and if their 


■ 92 ■ 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


tactics failed to entice businessmen, they did succeed in selling stock to 
the public. White built a penthouse laboratory with glass walls and 
ceiling in downtown Manhattan. A sister station was installed at the 
Castleton Hotel on Staten Island. Prospective investors watched De 
Forest in the glass lab signal across the bay. Then White would paint a 
picture of “worldwide wireless,” with every country on the globe pay- 
ing tribute to the De Forest Company. On February 7, 1903, White and 
De Forest parked an automobile equipped with a small wireless station 
in the Wall Street area, center of the stock market frenzy. From the car, De 
Forest transmitted stock market quotations to a Dow Jones office. 85 The 
newspapers featured the story, and White in turn cited the newspaper 
stories in his stock advertisements. This demonstration suggested that 
wireless might have a place in Wall Street’s communications network, 
which implied that the invention represented a promising investment. 
The company also built stations in locations where its salesmen deter- 
mined that stock could be sold. As these stations neared completion, 
salesmen and brokers sold the stock for between five and fifty dollars a 
share. One such station was built in Atlanta. It cost three thousand 
dollars to build and brought in fifty thousand dollars in stock sales. The 
Atlanta station, and many others, never transmitted a single word. 86 

White’s specialty was the press release, which he sent out with 
abandon. Few of them were true, but White knew that having his claims 
printed in the paper imbued them with legitimacy. Like Marconi, White 
recognized that the press was his primary advertiser. These releases 
were in fact fraudulent, and had nothing to do with building an organiza- 
tion. The purpose of all press stories was short-term financial gain. One 
release claimed that De Forest Wireless had absorbed American Marconi. 
Another declared that the De Forest system was the official system of the 
U.S. Signal Corps and the U.S. Navy. The newspapers did not investigate 
White’s claims and printed these releases uncritically. White’s stock ad- 
vertisements would include a reproduction of the newspaper article 
accompanied by the opening line “Did you read yesterday’s papers?” 87 

To add further credibility to his promotional material, White re- 
minded readers about Bell Telephone’s rags-to-riches story. In 1902 he 
had persuaded Bell to serve as a consultant to the company. In pamphlets 
titled “The History of an Opportunity,” the De Forest company advised: 
“Bell Telephone stock, when first offered, went begging at fifty cents a 
share, and those same shares today are worth $4,000. . . . With the Bell 
Telephone stock in memory . . . thoughtful persons are buying up wire- 
less stock with avidity.” The pamphlet suggested that those who bought 
stock were being altruistic and financially shrewd at the same time: “All 


93 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


great discoveries which have brought civilized communities into close 
touch have made millions for those who obtained an interest in them 
during the early stages of development.” The prospectus also continued, 
on a more personal note, “There is not enough stock to go around. 
Consider the matter carefully. You have the opportunity. Will you grasp it 
‘at the flood tide’ (now) and ride onto the shore of plenty, high and dry 
above the adversities which often beset old age ... or will you hesitate 
and doubt, and let the chance go by, to remain in senile dependency upon 
the bounty of others? ... A few hundred dollars invested now and given 
to your children should make them independent.” 88 White also sold stock 
on the installment plan, two dollars down, two dollars a month. 

The promotional material was highly nationalistic and patriotic. 
Seeking to emphasize the difference between De Forest and Marconi, 
whom De Forest and his technicians privately referred to as the Dago, 
White emphasized in his press releases: “It is the policy of our company 
to develop its own system with American brains and American capi- 
tal.” 89 

By July of 1902, De Forest stock was selling, and soon White was 
handling hundreds of thousands of stock promotion dollars. Very little of 
this cash was allocated for research, development, legal services, or 
patent applications. It was spent instead on lavish offices, advertising, 
and showcase wireless stations. White determined the company’s policy, 
and that policy was dazzle, advertise, and keep selling stock. White 
dispatched De Forest around America to lecture, demonstrate the wire- 
less, and “talk glowing prospects.” De Forest was allowed little time and 
no technical help for experimentation. He did, however, continue to 
work on his wireless telephone, which he was convinced would be even 
more successful than wireless telegraphy. 

In the autumn of 1903, De Forest demonstrated his “new” system 
during the yacht races. Although interference was reportedly consider- 
able, De Forest did impress Sir Thomas Lipton, owner of the challenger 
to the Cup, Shamrock III. Sir Thomas invited De Forest to Great Britain 
to promote the American’s system, but De Forest was unable to sell any 
apparatus. However, he managed to negotiate a contract with the Times 
of London to transmit news of the Russo-Japanese War from China by 
wireless. White immediately began publishing a newsletter called Wire- 
less News. Filled with news items describing the progress of the De 
Forest system, Wireless News also contained a full-page testimonial by 
Sir Thomas extolling the virtues of the De Forest system. The newsletter 
notified readers that the Times, “the most conservative and influential 
newspaper in Europe, [was] utilizing the De Forest system in its war 
correspondence service from Korean waters.” 90 


• 94 ■ 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


Another early and important client was United Fruit, a company 
completely dependent on rapid and reliable transportation and commu- 
nications systems. Incorporated in 1899, and one of the first transnational 
enterprises operating in Latin America, United Fruit established its 
hegemony in the region through a combination of wealth, technological 
prowess, and favorable deals with pliant local governments. The dis- 
tribution of highly perishable products, primarily bananas, required pre- 
cise organizational coordination, which was often hampered by the 
crude communications services then existing in Latin America. Radio 
Broadcast later reported that in 1904, “the entire eastern coast of Central 
America and the northern coast of Columbia, South America, were 
without any direct means of communication with the United States, 
with the single exception of a cable station at Colon, Panama.” The 
journal then described how important business information was trans- 
mitted. Messages from the United States arrived via cable and traveled 
over government land lines in Nicaragua and Costa Rica for delivery at 
United Fruit’s office at Port Limon. These messages were then “entrusted 
to natives, who would make the trip in a canoe on the open sea between 
Port Limon and Bocas del Toro in from 30 to 60 hours, depending on 
weather conditions.” Obviously, such an arrangement was unsatisfacto- 
ry to United Fruit’s executives. The company was reportedly so desper- 
ate for an improvement on this situation that it was “prepared to go to 
almost any expense to insure against undue delays to its messages.” 91 

In 1904, Mack Musgrave, who supervised United Fruit’s telegraph 
and telephone service in Costa Rica, came to the United States to investi- 
gate wireless. De Forest was at the peak of his fame, backed by White’s 
continuous press releases and demonstrating his apparatus at as many 
well-attended public events as possible. Musgrave bought two complete 
sets of wireless from De Forest for stations at Port Limon, Costa Rica, and 
Bocas del Toro, Panama. By 1907, United Fruit had erected and equipped 
two more stations, and the next year it added four more, giving it stations 
in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Cuba, Louisiana, and Swan Island in the Car- 
ibbean. It had also begun installing wireless aboard its “Great White 
Fleet,” which consisted of approximately twenty-five ships specially de- 
signed for the transportation of produce. 92 

United Fruit’s wireless operators were plagued by static, which was 
especially bad in the tropics for nine months out of the year. With De 
Forest’s early spark gap apparatus, which emitted a low-pitched sound 
not easily distinguishable from static, United Fruit’s early work with 
wireless was extremely discouraging. But for this company, wireless 
was the only alternative to either rudimentary or nonexistent commu- 
nications channels, and thus the company made a commitment to con- 


■ 95 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 



De Forest exhibit at the St. Louis Exposition displaying the first automobile 
equipped with wireless, 1904. 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


tinue trying out and developing the invention. This commitment made 
United Fruit the only major American corporation willing to invest mon- 
ey and manpower in wireless telegraphy. As a result, the fruit company 
later became an unlikely partner in corporate negotiations over who 
would control which sectors of American broadcasting. 

Selling a few wireless sets to United Fruit, however, was merely a 
sideline for White. He was always concerned, first and foremost, with 
promotion. Although the Marconi Company initially had exclusive rights 
to display wireless at the St. Louis Exposition, White succeeded in con- 
vincing the fair authorities that an American wireless company should 
also be represented. When the Marconi Company withdrew, White was 
left in a highly visible position that he was quick to exploit. A sightseeing 
tower previously used at Niagara Falls was purchased for ten thousand 
dollars and reerected at St. Louis. 93 De Forest’s name, spelled out in 
lights, illuminated the tower, which was one of the highest structures at 
the fair. The station participated in legitimate experimentation and in 
showmanship. Whenever the crowds around the tower thinned, the 
operators emitted as loud a spark as possible, which reportedly could be 
heard a quartermile away. 94 

De Forest was also eager to establish whether overland communica- 
tion was feasible. Professor Michael Pupin, who was frequently quoted 
in the press on wireless matters, and just as frequently was wrong, had 
asserted “Wireless messages can never be sent over great distances on 
land.” 95 But on September 5, 1904, a De Forest operator sent a message 
105 miles, from St. Louis to Springfield. Six days later, the company set a 
new overland record of 300 miles. 96 These distances represented not 
regular communication practice, but fluke successes. Nonetheless, news 
of them appearing in publications did much to sell De Forest stock and to 
give the impression that De Forest was outdistancing all other American 
competition. The overland success also brought the De Forest display the 
fair’s gold medal and grand prize for best wireless system. Such awards 
provided excellent grist for White’s publicity mill. 

De Forest reveled in his success at the World’s Fair. The newspaper 
headlines, his name in lights, the money rolling in, a fleeting romance 
with a senator’s daughter: this was all he had dreamed of at Talladega 
and Yale. But the spotlight blinded him to the precariousness of his posi- 
tion. He was White’s marionette, not his partner. De Forest did not have 
controlling interest in the company that bore his name. His corporate 
vulnerability was exacerbated by his technical dependence: he was 
achieving success with a receiver copied from Fessenden. De Forest 
appears during these years to have been a self-deluded, crass, and en- 


• 97 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


trepreneurially shortsighted inventor who knew and learned little about 
legitimate long-term corporate strategies. But he did learn one important 
thing: the American people were enthralled with wireless. They 
weren’t quite sure how they themselves might use it, but the press 
accounts, displays, and promotional material had convinced many of 
them that wireless was a significant invention with the potential to make 
lots of money. There was much De Forest failed to learn, but the Ameri- 
can fascination with radio he did not forget. 


JOHN STONE WAS respected and admired by his fellow experimenters. 
His university training and work at Bell Telephone had established him 
as a gifted electrical engineer with an unusually strong background in 
mathematics. But he was described as being “not much use as a busi- 
nessman.” 97 After leaving Bell Telephone, Stone continued experiment- 
ing with loose coupling and selectivity and applied for a patent on his 
method of tuning in February 1900. Stone’s patent attorney, A. P. 
Browne, then approached potential investors to raise capital for con- 
tinued experimentation. After canvassing several sources without re- 
sults, Browne succeeded in interesting B. T. Judkins, a Boston busi- 
nessman, in forming a small syndicate to support Stone’s investigations. 
Judkins enlisted the aid of ten associates, each of whom subscribed one 
thousand dollars, and the Stone Wireless Telegraph Syndicate was 
formed on December 31, 1900. With this backing, Stone rented space in a 
warehouse and worked to refine his system. He concentrated on the 
coupling between the open and closed circuits in his attempts to refine 
tuning and reduce the damping of the waves. He used the spark gap 
transmitter and the coherer, which continuously gave him trouble. 
Stone’s apparatus emitted a sharply defined wave that the coherer often 
failed to detect. Stone attempted to develop his own receiver and to 
refine the coherer. He developed a self-decohering device that used car- 
bon granules instead of metal filings, but this coherer was not very sen- 
sitive. The coherer did not work well in his selective system, but Stone 
struggled along with it until he began using the electrolytic detector. 98 

After conducting his own tests on the simultaneous transmissions of 
different wavelengths between two differently tuned transmitters and 
receivers, Stone asked scientists from Johns Hopkins and the Mas- 
sachusetts Institute of Technology to run independent tests of the system. 
They verified that Stone’s method of tuning was successful: his receivers 
responded to their intended wavelengths and ignored other signals, in- 
cluding static. Persuaded that Stone’s system was marketable, the syndi- 


• 98 • 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 



John S. Stone standing in the doorway of his wireless station 
in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ca. 1904. 


cate formed the Stone Telegraph and Telephone Company in July 1902. 

Stone erected wireless “huts” on both sides of the Charles River, in 
Boston and Cambridge, and in 1903 he set up a receiving station in Lynn, 
Massachusetts. These stations were experimental, not commercial. In 
1904, at the request of the Signal Corps, Stone tried to operate his system 
between Cambridge and New London, Connecticut, a distance of about 
one hundred miles. Because his receiver was too weak and his transmit- 
ting power insufficient, Stone failed in these attempts. However, a year 
later, he demonstrated his apparatus, at his own expense, at three navy 
yards on the North Atlantic coast. In November 1905, after a three- 
month trial period, the navy purchased these three installations. Stone 
also instituted, in 1904, wireless service between the Isles of Shoals and 
Portsmouth, New Hampshire. By 1905, Stone’s company had begun to 
sell its apparatus and increase its visibility. 

Stone’s company was supported by a number of investors, and no 
stock in it was sold to the general public. The company sold apparatus, it 
did not provide a communications service. Stone, a gifted mathematician, 


• 99 ■ 


INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


did not have a skilled entrepreneur to help him run the company effi- 
ciently. While his company’s policies did not taint wireless’s reputation, 
as had De Forest’s, neither did they help to popularize or advance the 
innovation, as had those of Marconi and Fessenden. 


TWO EXTREMES ON THE corporate spectrum were represented by the 
fledgling American wireless firms: on the one end, the tiny research lab, 
refusing to sell either stock or apparatus; on the other, the wireless 
medicine show, selling worthless stock to anyone willing or able to buy. 
The contemporary financial climate encouraged both modes of operation 
and contributed to the shortsightedness and self-delusion inherent in 
each. Had De Forest and White been more scrupulous, or Fessenden, 
Given, and Walker more enterprising, one of the American companies 
might have posed a major corporate threat to Marconi’s American sub- 
sidiary. In 1905 all these companies were still surviving, and in fact were 
optimistic, but the fault lines in each are, in retrospect, quite apparent. 

Only Marconi had grasped and exploited the interdependence 
among technology, business strategy, and the press. All of these were 
interlocked in his mind as he pursued his major goal of building an inter- 
national monopoly. He settled on a leasing policy in order to attract 
customers and retain control of the apparatus and the system. Whereas 
all the inventors referred to their devices as a system, only Marconi 
constructed a policy that backed up the notion of the complete system 
and ensured that it would not be compromised or invaded by foreign 
components. He instituted the nonintercommunication policy to discour- 
age competition. He exploited the advertising potential of the press. 
Marketing ploys and corporate goals were clearly and inextricably 
linked: his public demonstrations were designed to legitimate his busi- 
ness strategies. He knew where his clients were and where he wanted 
his company to be in the future. He had developed a mechanism, albeit 
imperfect and controversial, for making wireless pay. Although his com- 
pany was still small, it was governed by the orderly proceedings charac- 
teristic of larger, more established corporations. 

Fessenden, De Forest, and Stone failed to follow these steps or to 
offer a solid alternative to Marconi’s corporate strategies. They had only 
short-term responses that obscured the longer view. NESCO, by 1905, 
was neither selling apparatus nor providing a communications service. 
The firm had failed to use the pages of the press effectively to promote 
Fessenden and his inventions and gain wider legitimacy. In the minds of 
the men running NESCO, and in the everyday operations of the company, 


■ 100 • 



The Visions and Business Realities of the Inventors 


the three arenas of technology, business, and the press were not strate- 
gically linked. Abraham White, however, appreciated all too well how 
to use the press to create and manipulate a market. He knew that celebri- 
ty would bring legitimacy sufficient to sell stock; why waste time on 
technology or genuine business strategy? De Forest, with fevered impa- 
tience barking at his heels, endorsed the shortcuts taken. Business struc- 
ture and strategy were the last things on his mind. Stone, meanwhile, 
devoted nearly all of his attention to refining his apparatus. All three men 
thought in terms of competition rather than monopoly. 

The Marconi Company’s most far-reaching strategic breakthrough 
was, as we can see, conceptual. All of Marconi’s strategies, and the 
structure he hoped would promote them, rested on a revolutionary way 
of thinking about the ether. As early as 1900, Marconi had regarded the 
ether as territory he could preempt and privatize. To profit by his in- 
ventions, he would stake his claim to the spectrum and then try to deny 
competitors access to it. He sought to limit who would send and who 
would receive. In retrospect it is clear that this assumption — that a mo- 
nopoly, through its control of critical technology and its policies about 
how the technology should be used, would oversee access to the spec- 
trum — was perhaps Marconi’s most historically significant legacy. This 
assumption extended the basic tenets of monopolistic capitalism to some- 
thing invisible, ubiquitous, and seemingly communal. Because it was an 
assumption the Marconi Company jealously promoted and others vig- 
orously opposed, it produced national and international struggles over 
who had territorial rights in the spectrum. Here was an idea that made 
broadcasting history. 


101 



CHAPTER FOUR 


WIRELESS TELEGRAPHY IN THE 
NEW NAVY 

1899-1906 


TO WIRELESS INVENTORS eagerly looking for customers, none 
seemed more promising than the U.S. Navy. Fresh from its victories in the 
Philippines and Cuba, and in the midst of successful renovation and 
modernization, the U.S. Navy still lacked a critical tool: a reliable and 
versatile method of communications which would keep ships in touch 
with one another and with the shore. Other navies were acquiring such a 
tool, and the United States Navy could not afford to fall behind. By 1899, 
Marconi was already supplying the British and Italian navies with wire- 
less, and Kaiser Wilhelm II was providing government support for the 
development of a German wireless system designed specifically for mili- 
tary purposes. These international competitive pressures were an added 
incentive for acquiring wireless. If commercial markets for wireless still 
seemed somewhat uncertain in the United States, the military market 
seemed assured. 

A detailed account of the navy’s role in the development of Ameri- 
can wireless is essential for several reasons. As the inventors’ major 
potential client and as the part of the government most concerned with 
the invention’s deployment, the U.S. Navy Department between 1899 
and 1912 had a determining effect on the fortunes of the fledgling Ameri- 
can companies. Later, during World War I, in the interests of national 
security, the U.S. Navy controlled and operated America’s radio commu- 
nications network of shipboard and shore stations. When the war ended, 
navy officials assumed a central role in the negotiations leading to the 
formation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). But a retelling of 
the navy story is also important because several historians have empha- 
sied the salutary effects of what has been called navy patronage while 


■ 102 • 



Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


neglecting to examine the often negative repercussions of the naval 
response to wireless. 1 In fact, the navy offered the wireless inventors a 
less enthusiastic reception than the inventors expected and historians 
have recorded. World affairs and the favorable publicity wireless had 
received prompted the navy to give the invention a trial in 1899. But the 
navy was a tradition-bound and insular bureaucracy whose organiza- 
tional structure exacerbated the technical conservatism of many of its 
officers. By 1915, the secretary of the navy would write, “Wireless 
telegraphy . . . has come to be regarded as an indispensable adjunct of 
naval communication.” 2 The route to this realization, however, was long 
and tortuous indeed. 

At the turn of the century, the navy appeared, from the outside, to 
provide a ready-made market for wireless. Ideological shifts within the 
United States and international military and economic competition had 
launched the navy on a course of modernization and expansion. Be- 
tween the end of the Civil War and the early 1880s, the condition of the 
U.S. Navy had deteriorated so markedly that congressmen, the press, 
and even naval officials ridiculed the fleet. As the press discovered the 
journalistic power of scare stories on the subject of naval unprepared- 
ness, rumors and articles circulated depicting the various American 
coasts as helpless, terrorized by enemy ships from Europe and South 
America. 3 Such exaggerated fears contributed to support for significantly 
upgrading the navy during the 1880s. In addition, the country that was 
emerging as an industrial giant, that was relying on its burgeoning civil- 
ian technical arsenal to outdistance other industrial nations, could not 
tolerate the idea that its navy was technically backward. 

The rationale for American naval expansion had been articulated by 
Alfred Thayer Mahan, recently retired as president of the Naval War 
College in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1890 Mahan published The Influ- 
ence of Sea Power upon History, 1660—1783. His arguments urging the 
strategic and commercial importance of a strong navy captured and dis- 
tilled many of the emerging rationales for American international expan- 
sionism that had begun to circulate in the 1880s. 4 Growing American 
support for expansionism derived from commercial, political, and ideo- 
logical ambitions. Establishing an overseas presence, however, with the 
European powers already embroiled in intense colonial competition, 
depended on a strong merchant marine, which in turn had to be backed 
by a strong navy. 

Mahan’s book, by placing the discussion of national and naval 
strength in a historical context, both synthesized the prevailing senti- 
ments for expansionism and gave them intellectual credibility and 


■ 103 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


weight. His treatise, which received careful attention in both America 
and Europe, was an “instant success.” 5 During the 1890s, and particu- 
larly during the depression, Mahan gained many adherents, who viewed 
the establishment of secure foreign markets as the solution to all the 
country’s economic woes. 6 In December 1897, he published a collection 
of essays titled The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future. 
Shifting his attention from the past to the present, Mahan called on his 
countrymen to “look outwards,” to take their “rightful place among the 
nations.” 7 Specifically, this meant annexing Hawaii, establishing coaling 
stations in the Pacific and the Caribbean, and beginning construction of a 
canal across the Isthmus of Panama. It meant acquiring more property 
and making the navy stronger than ever. And it often meant acquiring 
property specifically for the navy. Without “foreign establishments,” 
warned Mahan, “the ships of war of the United States, in war, will be 
like land birds, unable to fly far from their own shores. To provide resting 
places for them, where they can coal and repair, would be one of the first 
duties of a government proposing to itself the development of the nation 
at sea.” 8 By 1898, when America eagerly declared war on Spain to 
“liberate” Cuba and the Philippines, the U.S. Navy had been dramat- 
ically renovated, and imperialism prevailed over isolationism. Dewey’s 
victory offered a convincing display of America’s new capabilities and 
intentions. America was no longer an inexperienced backwoods country 
with an “alphabet of floating washtubs.” 9 It aspired to larger interna- 
tional stature, and it would pursue this goal backed by its “New Navy.” 

Mahan’s most enthusiastic and influential apostle was Theodore 
Roosevelt. A man whose world view incorporated the assertion of a 
decidedly masculine brand of adventurism and competitiveness, Roose- 
velt quickly rose into powerful positions that allowed for full expression 
of his philosophy. Early in 1898 he wrote, “If the United States is to 
continue to hold on the Pacific the position to which its great sea-front 
and its wealth and population entitle it, then we must steadily go on 
building up our navy.” 10 By 1900, America controlled the Philippines, 
Guam, the Hawaiian Islands, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, and thus had gained 
strategic positions in the Pacific and the Caribbean. Central to these 
victories, and to the realization of other international ambitions, was the 
continued and preferably ever-increasing strength and technical sophis- 
tication of the new navy. Determination to continue naval expansion 
was a major goal of Roosevelt’s presidency. 

The international obsession with and race for the acquisition of 
property which the United States had joined exacerbated previously 


■ 104 ■ 



Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


held suspicions, and political leaders became increasingly paranoid over 
any advantages held by their rivals. The contest was over ownership of 
property, particularly property in Asia and Africa, which the Europeans 
had come to realize had considerable economic value. Beyond the direct 
financial benefits, control over property allowed the owners to deter- 
mine who would have access to the property (and its products) and to 
decide how the property would be used. Control over such possessions, 
then, brought far more than economic returns: it extended the owner’s 
cultural, intellectual, and religious influence. The British Empire was 
geographically the most extensive and influential empire, and the French, 
the Belgians, and the Germans aggressively sought to challenge its 
hegemony. Because, ultimately, this hegemony had been established and 
preserved by a strong navy, the contending rivals, and Kaiser Wilhelm II 
in particular, initiated a determined military buildup during the late nine- 
teenth century. Other nations, unwilling to fall behind, matched his 
efforts, contributing to a rapidly accelerating arms race. Nationalism and 
militarism, then, were closely intertwined, a lesson not lost on the 
Americans. 

Until 1900, however, few national leaders or their military agents 
had to concern themselves with what went on in “the air.” After all, 
the air was free; intangible; an age-old symbol of unfettered transcen- 
dence; an open, unclaimed expanse. Marconi’s achievements and his 
corporate strategies changed this perception. By sending signals, and 
then messages, more than two thousand miles across the Atlantic in 
1901 and 1902, Marconi aroused territorial concerns, especially in Eu- 
rope. Marconi’s breakthrough meant that wireless messages could cross 
many national boundaries. Electromagnetic waves did not respect these 
boundaries; countries could not cordon off their portion of the ether. As 
Electrical World observed, “Wireless telegraphy . . . involves all coun- 
tries in one circumambient ether, and the air about each is permeated by 
undulations emitted by others. All countries are, therefore, brought into 
virtual contact in the aerial ether.” 11 Such contact, noted the magazine, 
would be considered most unwelcome. 

What would be the effect on wireless telegraphy in France and Ger- 
many of transmitters pounding away on the ether in hurling messages 
at America? What would the hypersensitive German Government say 
if the staff messages during its sacred army maneuvers were broken in 
upon by John Bull vociferously ordering pork in Chicago? The idea 
certainly involves the possibility of international complications of a 
highly interesting sort . 12 


■ 105 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


The British had demonstrated in the nineteenth century that authori- 
ty over one type of property, land, rested in part on control of another 
type of property, effective communications technologies — specifically, 
the undersea cables. Now the fear emerged that whichever nation ex- 
celled in wireless would be in a dominant position, capable of blanketing 
the ether with messages invading the territorial airspace and con- 
sciousness of neighboring countries, and weaving a fabric of its own 
influence throughout the ether. A conception of the ether as territory, as 
property, was jelling. But how could countries control the ether, which 
was nationally important but at the same time invisible, communal, and 
mysterious? Making the psychological leap necessary to visualize control 
of activities in the ether would be difficult even in a period of relative 
harmony. During the internationally tense years at the turn of the cen- 
tury, when feelings of national pride were at their peak, the realization 
that even the sky could be violated by a foreigner, an interloper, was 
particularly unsettling. This fear of foreign occupation of one’s airspace 
crystallized early and never vanished. Aggravating these new concerns 
was Marconi’s nonintercommunication policy. 

While Marconi’s determination to establish his own complete and 
exclusionary communications network was a shrewd business decision, 
it was also a political time bomb. For while the policy represented, to 
Marconi, his only course for economic survival, it also introduced a 
revolutionary and distressing precedent: the policy implied that the com- 
pany viewed the ether as a territory over which it intended to establish 
property rights. As the first man to demonstrate how this newly dis- 
covered resource could be commercially exploited for the benefit of 
many, Marconi believed himself to be entitled to the rights and privileges 
that often went to the early pioneers, those who were the risk takers. 
Although Marconi could not “own” the ether, if he controlled how it 
was used and who gained access to it, then he would be the domain’s 
master. That, in turn, meant that the British, who already controlled a 
majority of the world’s cables, would control the airwaves, as well. Such 
an outcome was unthinkable to many government leaders and military 
officials who were carefully calculating the equations of respective ter- 
ritorial control. Consequently, several governments and their military 
services began devoting more time and attention to developing their 
own wireless systems, independent of Marconi and the British. If a coun- 
try’s position depended, ultimately, on a strong army and navy, then 
those services would have to establish their beachheads in the ether 
before Marconi staked out the entire realm. 

The U.S. Navy, caught up as it was in the international competition 


• 106 • 



Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


over the acquisition and disposition of property both visible and intangi- 
ble, and in need of wireless telegraphy, would have to confront Mar- 
coni’s exclusionary business policies. As it did so, the service would be 
pulled in several directions by the often contradictory goals of different 
officers. Some officers in the navy, backed by their commander in chief, 
were determined that the United States keep pace with European navies 
in every way. Maintaining parity would involve acquiring wireless ap- 
paratus and establishing a presence in the ether. Many in the service, 
however, did not embrace these goals. They valued tradition, not new- 
ness. From the outside, the navy of 1899 may have seemed quite modern- 
ized and technologically progressive, but a view from within reveals an 
institution filled with organizational and ideological barriers to adopting 
a new communications technology. Both ideological frameworks — the 
desire for expansionism and the allegiance to tradition — influenced the 
military mindset about how wireless should be used. 

Wireless made its debut before a navy adjusting to the physical 
transformation of its fleet. By 1899, the new fleet was nearly complete. 
Since the 1880s, the navy, prodded by Congress, and in the face of 
considerable internal resistance, had begun acquiring bigger, faster, more 
nearly impervious steel ships. 13 The change from canvas and wood to 
steam and steel profoundly affected the way a ship was run, what its 
needs were in port, and how officers thought of their duties and com- 
mand. The reconstruction, though much needed, was unsettling to the 
men and to the Navy Department, and, thus, any concomitant alteration 
in the bureaucracy which might have made this new navy more efficient 
was not readily forthcoming. The metamorphosis from old to new was 
initially cosmetic: while the hardware was being modernized, changes 
in naval administration, organization, and tactics lagged behind. Much as 
the first steam-powered ships retained rigging for sails, the naval organi- 
zation sought at least to preserve a familiar structure during such major, 
unsettling changes. 14 

In a navy like this, torn between the old and the new, there would 
be psychological and organizational impediments to adopting wireless. 
The navy’s internal structure was a major part of the problem. In 1899 
the Navy Department was comprised of eight bureaus, each headed by a 
bureau chief. 15 The chiefs were responsible to the secretary of the navy, a 
civilian political appointee who usually knew little or nothing about 
naval affairs and who served at the pleasure of the president. 16 The 
responsibilities and jurisdiction of the bureaus often overlapped, yet 
there were no men, committees, or offices to facilitate interbureau coop- 
eration. 17 Jealously guarding their territory and prerogatives, the bureau 


• 107 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


chiefs were often embroiled in internecine squabbles that generated 
“friction, circumlocution, and delay.” 18 The difficulty of reconciling and 
coordinating the duties and objectives of the bureaus was a constant 
cause of frustration to the secretary of the navy. 19 The bureaus, on the 
other hand, could not count on long-term or informed guidance from 
their chief executive. 

This lack of departmental coordination and direction was exacer- 
bated during the first decade of the twentieth century by the activities of 
the navy’s commander in chief. President Roosevelt took such an active 
interest in the Navy Department that he became its de facto secretary. 
Even someone as energetic as Roosevelt could not provide the depart- 
ment with sustained leadership and continuity while serving as presi- 
dent, however, and as a result, the navy’s top management and public 
relations position was compromised. Between 1902 and 1909, there 
were six secretaries of the navy, none of whom had much power or 
influence. 20 This leadership vacuum worsened the organizational isola- 
tion of the bureau chiefs. Consequently, the chiefs learned to rely on 
“precedent and routine,” and the department was guided by the daily 
grinding of the bureaucracy, which “ruled with an iron hand, usually 
ignoring, sometimes penalizing, those who attempted to introduce re- 
forms and innovations.” 21 

Tactically, the seagoing navy was equally decentralized until the 
twentieth century. Before then, the fleet had been divided into “small 
groups of cruising vessels thousands of miles apart,” although each ship in 
actuality usually cruised by itself. “Even when in company, the ships 
rarely engaged in group maneuvers,” the men accustomed to thinking of 
each ship more as a “potential solitary raider than as a unit of a fighting 
fleet.” 22 Although the department began mandating periodic exercises 
and maneuvers in 1894, there was no accompanying “fleet policy,” no 
long-term vision of coordinated activities or strategy within the Bureau 
of Navigation. Not until 1907 was there a permanent fleet consisting of 
ships and commanders trained to operate cooperatively. 23 

Thus, at sea and on shore, autonomy and independence at the higher 
levels of the bureaucracy prevailed. Within each bureau and on each ship, 
the lines of authority and communication were clear and strong. But 
between bureaus, and between ships, the lines, if they existed at all, 
were no more than fragile threads. Once ships were at sea, their lines 
literally and figuratively cast off, there was no web, either organizational 
or technical, to connect the ship to shore. 

The communications system available to the navy both served and 
reinforced its decentralized administration . By 1890, telegraphic or cable 


■ 108 ■ 



Wireless Telegraphy iii the New Navy 


communication was available in most ports and navy yards, and this 
somewhat eroded autonomy: when in port, squadron commanders 
could be closely in touch with Washington. Although by the turn of the 
century there was a “growing tendency to make naval strategic deci- 
sions at Washington instead of [in] the theater of operations,” this was 
still only a tendency and not a practice that could be enforced when ships 
were incommunicado. Flag signaling by day and newly installed light 
signaling by night were used for intership communications. During rain 
or fog, or across long distances, intership communication was impossible. 
Many ships were not equipped with lights and therefore could not signal 
at night. 24 And, once out at sea, no ship could communicate with the 
shore. 

Responsibility for providing ships with signaling apparatus fell to 
the Bureau of Equipment, which furnished the vessels with other sup- 
plies, including coal, rigging, navigational instruments, cordage, and 
hammocks. 25 Thus, the Bureau of Equipment, a procurement and sup- 
plies division with no authority over or expertise in engineering, ship 
construction and design, or maneuvers and fleet tactics, would be re- 
sponsible for assessing and acquiring wireless telegraphy, which would 
alter all three. 

The navy’s response to wireless also reflected its increasingly deli- 
cate political position. President Roosevelt, the navy’s primary lobbyist, 
began to encounter well-organized congressional opposition to extend- 
ing the new navy. Senators and congressmen opposed to Roosevelt’s 
brand of imperialism (and allied with others opposed to his liberal re- 
forms) succeeded in reducing several of Roosevelt’s requests for large 
naval appropriations. 26 These budgetary battles increased financial un- 
certainty and reinforced departmental caution. Thus, even if a bureau 
chief was technically sophisticated and sought to sponsor a particular 
innovation, he would confront obstacles above, below, and lateral to 
him in the organization. On the other hand, an officer’s reluctance to 
make use of a particular technology was protected by the navy’s de- 
centralized structure. 

The navy of 1899, then, was not the sort of organization in which 
technical sponsorship, especially of an invention that threatened auton- 
omy and decentralization, was either desired or possible. This was the 
bureaucracy that wireless and its inventors would confront. During 
two separate but overlapping processes — the navy’s acquisition of and 
the navy’s implementation of the invention — the wireless inventors 
wrestled with unanticipated obstacles. The inventors were working at 
the forefront of electrical engineering, tackling both scientific and tech- 


109 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


nical mysteries. The mysteries of organizational dynamics, however, 
would be more difficult to crack. 


IN OCTOBER 1899, the Bureau of Equipment, taking advantage of Mar- 
coni’s American visit, sought to inspect his apparatus on behalf of the 
navy. Marconi agreed to allow four officers, all electrical experts, to 
witness the operation of his equipment throughout the yacht races. 27 In 
his report to the bureau, Lieutenant J. B. Blish stated that the demonstra- 
tions “were most convincing that the system was already excellently 
adapted for use on board ship.” “My investigations since then,” Blish 
added, “have strengthened that conviction.” 28 

During these observations, Marconi was persuaded to allow naval 
testing of the apparatus after the yacht races. Marconi agreed to the tests 
only after issuing several disclaimers: he had not expected to give such a 
demonstration, and thus the equipment he had with him was not “suffi- 
cient for a government test ... on a large scale.” Nor did he have with 
him his “devices for preventing interference” from competing transmit- 
ters, because these devices were not yet “completely patented.” 29 Mar- 
coni wanted it understood that this was not his standard demonstration 
for naval vessels, that he did not have all of his state-of-the-art equipment 
with him, and that, consequently, he could not guarantee the same suc- 
cess in these tests that he had achieved during the yacht races. Marconi 
was on the verge of patenting his method of tuning, whereby several 
wavelengths could be used with a given antenna. Because he was the 
only one signaling during the yacht races, he had no need for tuning and 
had not brought the additional apparatus to America. Whereas Marconi 
was seeking to protect himself from unjust criticism, the navy eventually 
came to believe that he was trying to cover up a major and unavoidable 
defect of the system. 30 

Marconi’s apparatus was dismantled from the press boats in October 
of 1899 and installed on the armored cruiser New York and the battleship 
Massachusetts, both anchored in the New York harbor. A third set, at the 
Navesink Lighthouse in New Jersey, served as the shore station. Mem- 
bers of the navy’s “Marconi Board” were to assess the equipment’s ac- 
curacy, establish maximum operating distance, determine the best loca- 
tion for the instruments, and report on interference. After several days of 
tests, one of the board members, Lieutenant Commander J. T. Newton, 
advised the bureau that sending accuracy was not always achieved and 
that Marconi’s temporary setup aboard the ships would be inadequate 
for a permanent installation. Transmission speed averaged twelve words 


110 • 



• Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 

per minute. While the two ships exchanged messages over a distance of 
36.5 miles, and the Massachusetts received the New York’s transmissions 
from as far away as 46.3 miles, this success was overshadowed by a 
persistent drawback: interference occurred whenever more than one set 
was signaling, because only one wavelength was being used for all 
transmissions. Although Marconi had claimed that he could prevent in- 
terference, Newton complained that Marconi “never explained how nor 
made any attempt to demonstrate that it could be done.” 31 

Despite these failings, Newton and the board recommended that the 
navy give the system a trial. Newton pointed out that the system could be 
adapted for use on all navy vessels and had the distinct advantage of 
performing well in “rain, fog, darkness, and motion of ship.” “Excessive 
vibration at high speed apparently produced no bad effect on the instru- 
ments,” Newton observed. Within the working ranges, accuracy was 
good. Newton noted that the best location for the instruments would be 
“below, well protected, in easy communication with the commanding 
officer.” 32 Another board member wrote, “Even in its present state the 
instruments can be made useful in signaling between ships, and ship and 
shore.” 33 

Admiral R. B. Bradford, chief of the Bureau of Equipment and him- 
self quite knowledgeable about electrical technology, was persuaded by 
this report and appealed to the secretary of the navy on December 1, 
1899: “This system is successful and well adapted for Navy use. The 
chief objection to it is known as ‘interference.’ . . . Notwithstanding this 
fact, the Bureau is of the opinion that the system promises to be very 
useful in the future for the naval service.” Citing Marconi as the recog- 
nized inventor and noting that no other “makers of electrical instru- 
ments” had been able to duplicate Marconi’s apparatus successfully, 
Bradford recommended acquiring sets from Marconi for continued naval 
experimentation. 34 

Despite this favorable endorsement from the Bureau of Equipment, 
the navy did not acquire any of Marconi’s apparatus. Why was this 
admittedly imperfect yet extremely promising invention not adopted by 
the new navy? The explanation most often cited is that the navy rejected 
Marconi’s contract specifications because they were too expensive and 
restrictive. The dispute over the terms of purchase reflected misunder- 
standing on each side about the needs of and constraints on the other 
party to the contractual negotiations. Because of the company’s new 
leasing policy, Marconi would not sell his apparatus to the navy or to 
anyone else without royalties. Under his terms, the navy would pur- 
chase no fewer than twenty sets at a total cost of ten thousand dollars and 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


agree to pay a ten-thousand-dollar annual royalty. The royalty would be 
reduced if more than twenty sets were purchased . 35 For Marconi, these 
terms represented a concession: the navy was allowed to keep the sets, 
whereas other customers could only lease the apparatus. But the navy 
found the terms, and the corporate strategies underlying them, com- 
pletely unacceptable. 

The navy’s reaction to Marconi’s terms and policies was influenced 
by finances, by precedent and law, by nationalism, and by a continuing 
suspicion of inventors and business firms. The Bureau of Equipment did 
not have enough money to pay Marconi’s price, and the department was 
constrained, by law, from obligating funds beyond the current fiscal 
year . 36 In addition, the navy viewed Marconi’s leasing and nonintercom- 
munication policies as unnecessary and as monopolistic ploys designed 
solely for the purpose of granting yet another British company complete 
control over international communications. As one official noted, “Such a 
monopoly w'ill be worse than the English submarine cable monopolies 
which all Europe is groaning under and I hope the Navy Department of 
the U.S. will not be caught in its meshes .” 37 Anti-Semitism reinforced 
these fears. Although Marconi was Irish and Italian (and Catholic), and 
the managers and technicians of his company British (and not Jewish), he 
was sometimes thought of as part of a Jewish corporate cabal, having 
reportedly “sold himself to the Jews,” as one officer put it . 38 This preju- 
dice made the monopoly seem more sinister and threatening. From the 
navy’s point of view, Marconi was trying to prevent anyone else from 
gaining access to a resource — “the air” — which traditionally had been 
free. The navy had no way of understanding the financial difficulties 
surrounding wireless: the research expenses, the patent and legal fees, 
and the revenue problem. To the navy, the Marconi financing strategy 
was not protective but avaricious. Marconi, in turn, had no way of 
appreciating the financial, legal, and political constraints operating on the 
navy. John Bottomley, in a report to the British Marconi Company, re- 
ferred to Bradford’s “trite argument that the government could not legal- 
ly enter into a contract to expend money beyond an appropriation for a 
given fiscal year.” Bottomley then added derisively, “It is hardly neces- 
sary to comment on this argument .” 39 

During the next twelve years, negotiations between the navy and 
Marconi rarely transcended this early stalemate. But the Marconi Com- 
pany was not alone in provoking negative reaction from navy officials 
over prices and contract terms. Every company trying to do business 
with the navy encountered an attitude inhospitable to inventors and 
unappreciative of their technical goals and financial needs. The navy, on 


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Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


the other hand, found the inventors to be overly sanguine about the 
capabilities of wireless and insensitive to the navy’s various organiza- 
tional and political handicaps. 

Naval officers and wireless inventors were, in fact, approaching 
each other from two strong but opposite cultural traditions, traditions 
that influenced self-image and behavior, traditions that were laden with 
prejudice and stereotypes that often affected negotiations. A navy man 
and an inventor were very different types of people, differently so- 
cialized, with contrary and often conflicting orientations. The naval of- 
ficer was an organization man. He spent his life obeying orders, moving 
gradually up through the ranks, preserving and identifying with the 
status quo, honoring tradition, defending the organization that provided 
him with security and recognition. Except during wartime, success in the 
naval service involved diligence and diplomacy, keeping a low profile. 
Organizational stability surrounded and insulated the naval officer, and 
that was what he came to prize . 40 

The wireless inventor, on the other hand, had no such large organi- 
zational affiliation. Often he was a loner, sometimes seeing himself as an 
outcast who would redeem himself through his invention. Driven by a 
desire for fame, money, love, or all three, the inventor sought to make his 
mark on history by making change possible, by disrupting the status quo. 
Initially, sometimes constantly, plagued by problems of financing or 
solvency, and determined that their contributions would remain dis- 
tinctive, these men, among the last in the independent inventor tradition, 
built their reputations and careers on technical change and improvement. 
Stability, established ways of doing things, existing schemes — these 
were what the inventor disrupted, sometimes deliberately, sometimes 
inadvertently . 41 Because he lived on possibilities, he was of necessity 
overoptimistic, often given to exaggeration. 

Inventors and organization men acquired and used money differ- 
ently, and this was an additional and powerful source of mutual distrust. 
To paraphrase Hugh G. J. Aitken, inventors responded to market de- 
mands, to “signals” they received from the economy, while military men, 
not usually subject to outside forces, responded more to “internally gen- 
erated signals,” which were rarely tied to the marketplace . 42 Their con- 
trasting pecuniary orientations, coupled with widely divergent so- 
cializations, induced the members of each group to view the members of 
the other with suspicion and, occasionally, contempt. As the navy con- 
tinued to investigate wireless over the next ten years, these conflicting 
traditions, cultures, and attitudes played a salient part in contract dis- 
putes. 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


Not until the autumn of 1901 did the navy conduct further tests of 
wireless. That fall, the department decided to explore what European 
inventors other than Marconi had to offer. Why the department resumed 
its investigations into wireless at this time remains unclear. Although 
Reginald Fessenden had been experimenting with wireless under the 
auspices of the Weather Bureau, and Lee De Forest had recently formed 
his own company, the navy, also for reasons that remain unclear, be- 
lieved that there was “no American wireless telegraph company ready 
to furnish apparatus.” 43 

Commander Francis M. Barber, USN, retired, an old classmate and 
friend of Bradford’s, was living in Paris at this time. Well connected in 
diplomatic circles, knowledgeable about electrical engineering, and flu- 
ent in French and German, Barber seemed the perfect middleman be- 
tween the European inventors and the U.S. Navy. From 1901 until 1908, 
he monitored the European technical press, solicited information from 
inventors and naval officers, visited the various companies, and sent 
complete and lively reports on all aspects of wireless to the Bureau of 
Equipment. His thirty-year tenure with the U.S. Navy had given him a 
keen appreciation of how to get technical information from foreign mili- 
tary organizations. He ingratiated himself with the senior officers first, 
and after he had won them over, he felt free to go to the real source of 
information. As he wrote to Bradford, “it’s no use commencing with 
junior officers anyway. They have all the knowledge; but the old busters 
have to be coddled first.” 44 

Barber’s correspondence provides a fascinating view of how the 
bureau’s official representative perceived and dealt with the inventors 
and the still young wireless industry. During 1901 and 1902, he investi- 
gated the apparatus of two French inventors, Rochefort and Ducretet, 
and of two German firms, Slaby-Arco and Braun-Siemens-Halske. He 
liked Rochefort because he was a “modest gentlemanly little man and 
not at all captious and prejudiced as inventors usually are.” 45 He also 
observed that “an inventor is a visionary, a visionary is a genius, and a 
genius is a lunatic or next door to it.” 46 Some inventors he heard about 
aroused his interest, but he decided against satisfying his curiosity: “One 
better have the itch than encounter an impecunious inventor. He never 
lets up once he makes your acquaintance.” 47 One day he would visit 
Ducretet, who would call Rochefort a liar and a thief, and the next day he 
would hear Rochefort say the same things about Ducretet. Barber found 
sorting out the wireless situation in Germany particularly frustrating, 
because he was unable to obtain what he considered to be reliable 
information. “These manufacturers are such liars,” he complained, “that 
one often wonders with St. Paul ‘What is truth?’ ” Barber’s suspicion of 


. H4 . 



Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


inventors was compounded by his attitudes toward many foreigners. He 
was unimpressed with the German company Slaby-Arco, which he 
found “too slippery.” This opinion seems to have been reinforced by his 
impression of Count Arco, whom he described as “a weedy little chap 
with a great big head — he looks like a tadpole.” 48 In his assessment of the 
British, Barber commented, “You can’t hint to an Englishman, you must 
kick him. In my long business experience the English are the most dishon- 
est people I know.” 49 

Barber reserved his most stinging scorn for Marconi. Any informa- 
tion, whether rumor or fact, which reflected badly on Marconi’s apparat- 
us or his business was eagerly reported to the Bureau of Equipment. 
Barber heard — and believed — that Marconi had “walked off” with oth- 
ers’ inventions in developing wireless, and that he was therefore operat- 
ing with an extremely vulnerable patent structure. Thus, Marconi was 
sure ultimately to fail, but in the meantime, his “system” deserved to be 
circumvented, since it was all stolen anyway. 50 Barber doubted the 
accuracy of press accounts hailing signaling successes, such as Marconi’s 
celebrated transatlantic s in December of 1901. 51 He took particular 
delight in recounting a conversation he had with Colonel Hozier, the 
secretary of Lloyd’s and a director of the Marconi Company: “He thinks 
Marconi had never yet got a signal across the Atlantic or 2000 miles at sea 
either. The whole thing was a stock-jobbing operation worked in the 
interest of ‘a lot of Jews.’ This from a director of the company is rather 
good.” 52 He continued to hope and expect that the U.S. Navy would “be 
able to drive the American Marconi Company out of business.” 53 

These are the words and attitudes of the man who was the navy’s 
primary source of information regarding the European wireless commu- 
nity. As the Bureau of Equipment’s eyes and ears in Europe, he was in a 
highly influential position. The inventors, no doubt unaware of his true 
feelings, opened their laboratories and factories to him, advised him, 
confided in him, boasted to him, and, of course, tried to win him over. 
While transmitting important technical and business information to the 
bureau in the United States, Barber was also reflecting, and reinforcing, a 
particular way of viewing and dealing with inventors. He also articu- 
lated what appears to have been the prevailing naval attitude toward 
patents, wireless systems, and how properly to negotiate with the wire- 
less companies. To Barber and the bureau, inventors were those eccen- 
tric and frequently deceptive people the department was forced to do 
business with in order to get the apparatus it needed. The bureau’s 
subsequent business practices were certainly consonant with the overall 
spirit and outlook of Barber’s correspondence. 

During the next several years, the navy experimented with various 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


kinds of wireless, both European and American. These sets were usually 
tested between the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard and the Naval Acade- 
my at Annapolis, as well as between Annapolis and one or more ships. 
The distance between Annapolis and the Washington Yard was only 
thirty miles, so, as Barber noted, “almost anything ought to work 
there.” 54 In the spring of 1902, Barber arranged for the navy to purchase 
two sets each from Ducretet, Rochefort, Slaby-Arco, and Braun-Si- 
emens-Halske. 55 These were tested between August and October 1902. 
That autumn, De Forest succeeded in having the navy purchase and test 
two of his sets, but the trials were hindered by a dearth of skilled oper- 
ators and officers knowledgeable about radio. 56 A Wireless Telegraph 
Board was established to oversee and report on the tests, but its members 
had other, conflicting, duties and were unable to continue with the board 
for long. Three of the five members had to be replaced during the course 
of the tests. The officers ultimately “went their respective ways,” leaving 
three enlisted men to oversee the tests and then notify their superiors of 
the results. 57 

Admiral Bradford, chief of the Bureau of Equipment, complained to 
the secretary of the navy about the lack of departmental commitment to 
the experiments: “The Bureau desires to express its great regret that 
these important experiments have been interrupted for the want of ves- 
sels necessary for the work; also that two members of the Board are 
under order for sea. It is feared that no important results can be reached 
unless a Board can give its uninterrupted attention to the subject.” 58 

The early negotiations leading to the purchase and testing of these 
sets indicated how the navy would do business with the wireless com- 
panies over the next eight years. The navy enjoyed a buyer’s market, and 
Barber seemed well aware of his advantages. To ensure that their appa- 
ratus performed well, the various companies wanted their own en- 
gineers to be present at the tests. They expected the navy to subsidize the 
travel expenses, especially since naval operators and engineers would 
need the sort of instructions and advice not conveyable in written specifi- 
cations. From the inventors’ perspective, the navy would be getting the 
best possible results and free training, and should be obliged to cover the 
travel expenses. The navy, of course, did not see it this way, and declined 
to support such assistance. 59 

On instructions from Bradford, Barber indicated to the companies 
that the navy would not employ the services of any private specialists, 
and while it would be helpful to have experts on hand when the tests 
occurred, the navy’s engineers would probably be able to figure out the 
apparatus. 60 Of course, the thought of amateurs tinkering with their 


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Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


instruments drove the inventors wild, especially because proper perfor- 
mance could mean a big contract. Barber knew this, and quickly made 
the inventors see that sending representatives at their own expense was 
better than sending none at all. By April of 1902 he was able to advise 
Bradford: “I have them all corralled and they will go at their own 
expense rather than not at all.” 61 Extra expenditures had not been the 
only consideration: naval pride was operating, as well. Barber acknowl- 
edged, “It is rather humiliating to be obliged to have ‘square heads’ come 
over and show us how to run things, but after all the main idea is to 
succeed and to get the best apparatus.” 62 The navy spent nearly $12,000 
on the eight sets of wireless, whose prices ranged from $2,250 to $3,500 
for two sets. 63 When Slaby-Arco, citing recent improvements, tried to 
raise its prices, Barber notified the company that it could either return to 
its previous prices or cancel the navy’s order. 64 

During the tests, both the Slaby-Arco and the De Forest apparatus 
outperformed the French. 65 Slaby-Arco, hearing of its success, wrote 
Barber what he described as a “very cheeky letter”: “They wanted to 
know how soon now they might expect the orders which would repay 
them for the vast expenditure to which they had been subjected in 
sending engineers to the U.S. and they w r anted me to write and urge 
that the orders be placed immediately. I replied laconically.” 66 Slaby- 
Arco finally was awarded a contract. Its prices were low, and, more 
importantly, its apparatus was better suited to the navy’s need for easily 
adjustable instruments. The receiver used by Marconi and Slaby-Arco, a 
filings coherer, was connected to a recorder that printed signals on a 
strip of paper. The receiver, which was insensitive and erratic, would 
sometimes print static as well as signals, but it provided a written re- 
cord and required little skill to operate. De Forest had substituted head- 
phones for the tape, so the operator could distinguish between true and 
false signals. As one navy technician later noted, “The De Forest meth- 
od had the advantage of enabling any speed of reception to be used, 
depending on the skill of the operator, but the very fact that the Navy 
did not have even one operator [who] was skilled militated against the 
De Forest method.” 67 

Thus, the needs of the navy and the goals of the inventors, especially 
those Americans seeking to reconceptualize and improve on Marconi’s 
apparatus, were completely at odds. The inventors were striving for 
greater distance, greater selectivity, and faster reception. The inventors 
assumed the navy would welcome all three. The navy, on the other hand, 
preferred apparatus of moderate range which was easy to adjust and 
operate, even if it was less sensitive or accurate. Naval officers may have 


• 117 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


wanted apparatus that supplied a written record if the apparatus were 
going to be operated by enlisted men. The inventors were thinking in 
terms of technical improvement, not organizational accommodation, and 
they assumed the navy would want the most up-to-date apparatus avail- 
able. The navy, however, needed equipment that would compensate for 
its organizational idiosyncrasies, a factor the inventors were slow to 
grasp and reluctant to address. 

In March 1903 the navy ordered twenty units of Slaby-Arco appa- 
ratus. The purchase prompted Electrical World to condemn the navy for 
the “cold shoulder it had consistently turned to American workers in the 
field”; the journal referred to the system the navy favored as “that of the 
German Emperor’s court jester.” 68 Reginald Fessenden, whose company 
was now six months old, wrote to the Bureau of Equipment and the 
secretary of the navy suggesting that before buying foreign equipment, 
the navy should test his apparatus. Fessenden quoted Bradford a price of 
four thousand dollars for two sets and offered “to send a couple of men 
with a pair of sets” to whatever location the navy desired. 69 Bradford 
agreed, being careful to specify that the entire test would be at Fes- 
senden’s expense. The bureau would not, as it had before, purchase two 
sets. 70 Why should it? Already it had spent approximately six thousand 
dollars on French apparatus that barely worked. If they wanted the 
business, the Americans would have to take risks. Fessenden and De 
Forest continued to brag about their apparatus, particularly to the press. 
Navy officials, and Barber in particular, believed the claims to be hyper- 
bolic public-relations statements (which they sometimes were). 71 Yet if 
the inventors were going to boast, the navy was going to hold them to 
their word in subsequent tests. More frankness on both sides might have 
better served all concerned. But none of the inventors behaved as if he 
believed that candor would sell wireless. 

Bradford notified Fessenden of two other conditions for the tests: 
the navy had no room available on board ship for Fessenden’s apparatus, 
so he would have to set it up in a hallway, and the specifications for the 
apparatus included the filings coherer 72 Fessenden complained that the 
Slaby-Arco people had not been relegated to a hall, and said that his 
company was disinclined to supply the navy with special — and out- 
dated — apparatus at the company’s expense. 73 Bradford responded that 
the navy gave “available space only, not that best suited for the apparat- 
us.” 74 As a result of this impasse, no experiments with Fessenden appa- 
ratus were made until August and September of 1904, when the depart- 
ment scheduled tests of American apparatus between the Brooklyn 
Navy Yard and the Navesink Highlands. 75 


118 • 



Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


By early 1904, four and a half years after Marconi’s first demonstra- 
tions before the “Marconi Board,” the U.S. Navy had barely begun to 
exploit wireless, and only a few of the instruments in its possession were 
made by an American company. The apparently dilatory fashion with 
which the navy was adopting wireless was the subject of several biting 
editorials in the technical press. Electrical World wrote, “If the lack of 
such apparatus in our army and navy is due to the neglect of the moss- 
backed bureaucrats who sent our artillery into action at Santiago with 
black powder, the public ought to know it, that the authors of the negli- 
gence may be properly pilloried.” 76 Noting that, in the military, it had 
“too long been the fashion to fore-damn anything and everything devised 
by civilians,” the magazine warned that the navy’s “procrastination bu- 
reau” was indulging in dangerous dawdling. 77 “As matters stand now,” 
the magazine concluded, “we would be at a great disadvantage in this 
respect if attacked by any reasonable power.” 78 

While Fessenden and the navy squabbled over where to put a re- 
ceiver on board ship, events were occurring which prompted recon- 
sideration of the strategic importance of wireless. Although the primary 
actors in them were Europeans, these episodes drew the United States 
into the controversy surrounding how activity in the ether would be 
regulated among nations, and awakened some members of the navy to 
the realization that other navies were much further along in their use of 
and control over the invention of wireless telegraphy. 


IN MARCH OF 1902, Prince Henry, the Kaiser’s brother, was returning 
to Germany after a highly publicized visit to the United States. He was 
sailing aboard the German liner Deutschland, which was equipped with 
Slaby-Arco apparatus manufactured in Germany. According to the pre- 
vailing story, none of the Marconi stations on either side of the Atlantic 
would communicate with the ship because it used rival apparatus. Prince 
Henry, who had tried to send several messages to both the United States 
and Germany, was outraged. The ship, with its royal cargo, might as well 
have had no wireless equipment at all. A writer for Electrical World, 
describing German reaction as “malignant Marconiphobia,” reported: 
“There arose in Germany a chorus of effervescent indignation, which 
quickly sped along the cables to the Herald office in New York, so that the 
American hardly less soon than the European public was treated to the 
unedifying spectacle of a learned professor, a Noble Count and various 
other potent and distinguished personages alike, foaming at the mouth 
with a species of almost berserk fury.” 79 


■ 119 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


When the Deutschland incident was publicized, Marconi calmly 
contended that due to technical incompatibility, the Germans could not 
“communicate with [Marconi] instruments.” He elaborated, evoking the 
special Marconi tuning mechanism as an obstacle to intercommunication: 
“The instalments at these stations are intended to work with suitably 
tuned apparatus, and we have no information as to the kind of waves 
radiated from the installation on the Deutschland. . . . The bad working 
of the so-called Slaby-Arco system must be set down to its own de- 
fects.” 80 This rather disingenuous response epitomized, for the Germans, 
British commercial arrogance. The Kaiser’s own brother had been in- 
communicado, not for lack of apparatus, but because of the exclusionary 
policies of a British firm. Although the Deutschland incident appeared at 
first to be a petty confrontation between two rival companies and their 
respective countries, it was actually a watershed in the early history of 
wireless. The emerging problems surrounding the technology and its 
financing and regulation, and the sanctity of each country’s territorial air, 
were embodied in the Marconi-German clash. Could a private company, 
whether it had technical priority or not, gain dominance over a resource 
such as the airwaves and become the arbiter of who could use them and 
who could not? This was the question the Germans indignantly submit- 
ted to the world community, fully expecting the weight of opinion to be 
with them and against Marconi. 

German officials announced a campaign to thwart the Marconi Com- 
pany’s attempt to achieve an international monopoly. The Kaiser ordered 
that all German military and civilian stations would use only Slaby-Arco 
equipment, and that German experimentation would be stepped up. 81 In 
addition, he sought to involve the other major powers in the resolution of 
the conflict. His indignation over the Deutschland incident prompted him 
to invite seven nations to join Germany in an International Wireless 
Conference, scheduled for the autumn of 1903. Citing the preservation of 
world peace and free enterprise as the primary reasons for the meeting, 
the Kaiser sent invitations to Great Britain, France, Spain, Austria, Rus- 
sia, Italy, and the United States. A month before the conference, in July of 
1903, the two competing German firms, Slaby-Arco and Braun-Siemens- 
Halske, merged to form Telefunken in order to present a united German 
commercial front against Marconi. Telefunken, with the full support of 
the German government behind it, initiated a campaign to compete with 
Marconi on every continent. 

Marconi knew full well why the Germans had called such a con- 
ference, and he did not hesitate to question the Kaiser’s motivations: “I 
regard the proposed convention as neither more nor less than another 


« 120 • 



Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


attack by Germany upon British industry. . . . The time is not ripe for 
international consideration. It is better to let fair competition work out 
its natural results. You cannot well yoke my system to an inferior and 
unsuccessful imitation. The attempt is to place inferior imitations on 
terms of equality with the original system.” 82 The British press noted that 
had Germany been the first country to develop wireless, that country’s 
leader would not have been so eager to call such a meeting. The Ger- 
mans’ urging of such a conference in the name of peace had the ring of 
false piety. The Edinburgh Review described initial British reaction: 
“Any proposal hailing from the Kaiser affects a certain class of states- 
man — or, rather, politician — much as presenting a red tag to a bull affects 
that quadruped.” 83 Meanwhile, Marconi asked Cuthbert Hall to begin 
drafting a statement that the company would provide to both the British 
and the Italian delegates. “And I hardly need tell you,” wrote Marconi, 
“that [the statement] should be based rather upon what we take to be the 
interests of the shipping community in general than upon our own special 
interests.” 84 

Although the Kaiser’s invitation suggested that a range of issues of 
mutual concern would be discussed at the conference, the only real issue, 
as Marconi expected, was the Marconi Company’s refusal to communi- 
cate with other systems. 85 John I. Waterbury, one of the U.S. delegates to 
the conference, summarized the arguments on both sides of the issue. If 
the Marconi Company was forced to receive messages from what it 
alleged was an inferior system, it would injure its own interests and 
jeopardize the world’s good service. If the Marconi Company had an 
advantage over its rivals, the advantage was the result of fair competi- 
tion. Although wireless had been demonstrated in 1896, it had been in 
commercial operation only for three years, and world leaders were ill 
advised to tiy to “fetter a new discovery in its development.” On the 
other hand, the Marconi Company allegedly had declined to compete 
with anyone else over the same proving ground. The German delegates 
charged that the company’s results were no better than anyone else’s, 
that others could communicate as satisfactorily as Marconi, and that it 
was never too soon to prevent the company from achieving a world- 
wide monopoly. 

All countries at the conference except Italy and Great Britain 
favored compelling the Marconi Company to communicate with other 
systems, because how could an invention with such potential for saving 
lives and property be monopolized by one company? The question of 
compensation for the Marconi Company was then raised: Could govern- 
ments restrain a system without leaving it stripped of reward or protec- 


• 121 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


tion? The Italian delegates argued that the Marconi Company was en- 
titled to indemnity should the recommendation of the majority become 
law. English representatives favored a surtax on messages sent by rival 
concerns. Germany objected. The compromise effort failed, and the final 
resolution of the conference stated: “Coast stations for wireless telegra- 
phy are obliged to receive and transmit telegrams going to or returning 
from ships, without distinction as to the system of wireless telegraphy 
employed by the ships .” 86 However, the conference did not restrain 
Marconi at all, as the resolution did not have the force of law. Both Italy 
and Britain had government contracts with the Marconi Company for 
equipping their navies, and they maintained that signing the agreement 
would place them in violation of their contracts. The British delegates 
said they had no power to impose regulations and restrictions agreed on 
by other nations; in fact, they were not about to let Germany move 
effortlessly into an industry as potentially valuable as wireless. 

The other two American delegates to the conference were Brigadier 
General A. W. Greely of the U.S. Signal Corps, and the navy’s European 
wireless informant, Commander Barber. Barber arrived with his anti- 
Marconi sentiments and was happy to have them reinforced. The Ameri- 
can delegates also got a firsthand view of the importance other govern- 
ments, and especially other navies, attached to wireless and to ensuring 
military priority in the ether. The European armed forces were not going 
to permit Marconi to gain control of the ether; rather, they were going to 
stake their own claims. Each country was developing its own brand of 
wireless, often under strict government control. This gave them an ad- 
vantage, not only over Marconi, but also over the American military 
services. To the Europeans, the ether was a resource of such importance 
that its exploitation primarily for commercial purposes seemed short- 
sighted and risky. Marconi saw the ether as a resource having economic 
value, whereas the Germans and their allies believed its strategic value 
outweighed any other claims, especially those of business. This was the 
perspective that the Americans would take home with them and that 
would galvanize some members of the navy to become more actively 
involved in the deployment of wireless. 

The American delegates quickly came to believe that their status as 
representatives was inferior and that they were regarded as relatively 
powerless because their government had done little to promote or gain 
jurisdiction over the American wireless situation . 87 Thus, although the 
conference accomplished little that was formal or enforceable, it im- 
pressed on the American delegation the advantages and international 
importance of a strong military presence in the airwaves. Barber wrote 


• 122 • 



Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


to Bradford at the Bureau of Equipment describing the extent of govern- 
ment control in Europe, and Bradford used this information to argue for 
an extension and acceleration of the navy’s wireless work. But the chief 
of the Bureau of Equipment was not powerful enough to orchestrate 
such a program; he would need an organizational ally with greater 
authority, such as the secretary of the navy, to propose and implement the 
scheme. Because the naval secretaries of the Roosevelt administration 
were rendered impotent by the president’s naval activism, the bureau 
would need support from the president himself. Until 1904, however, 
issues much more important than wireless occupied the president. The 
invention moved closer to the forefront of his concerns in February 1904, 
when the Russo-Japanese War broke out and wireless played a role in an 
armed conflict for the first time. 

The use of wireless by the combatants and by observers raised 
complicated questions. Both the Japanese and the Russians relied on 
wireless during the war; in addition, many correspondents and observ- 
ers had converged on the war zone. De Forest, under contract to both the 
Times of London and the New York Times, had operators dispatching 
news of the war from China via wireless. Marconi operators were also 
in the vicinity. What was the status of such a correspondent and his press 
boat during hostilities? Could the governments involved prevent the 
press and civilian observers from usurping the airways during a particu- 
lar emergency? Russia was strenuously opposed to the use of wireless by 
neutrals within the zone of hostilities. This opposition stemmed from 
Russia’s embarrassing showing during the war; wireless was only one of 
many strategic areas in which Japan demonstrated its superiority. Some 
observers believed that Japan’s advanced wireless had provided a clear 
and decisive advantage. 88 But advanced wireless was not sufficient for 
successful exploitation of the airwaves during war; those airwaves also 
had to be available to government stations. 

The issues of who had priority in the airwaves, how respective 
spheres could be delineated, and how commercial stations could be pre- 
vented from interfering with government" stations became pressing. No 
guidelines existed for appropriate conduct in the ether during peace, 
much less during war. As one journal noted, “The ordinary precedents 
cease to have any direct value.” 89 President Roosevelt followed the war 
closely and was personally involved in the negotiations that led to the 
Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905. Consequently, he was cognizant of the 
ways in which Russia’s second-rate wireless system had served to under- 
mine that country’s position. He was also concerned about the inter- 
ference caused by the press and private wireless concerns in the war 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


zone when government access to the airwaves was critical. During the 
war, seven different wireless systems often were operating at once. 90 

Roosevelt began appreciating that the strong navy and the interna- 
tional preeminence he desired required an efficient, well-organized com- 
munications system. But within the American government, the navy 
was not the only organization pursuing a viable wireless system. Several 
government entities, in fact, had been quietly, though not very success- 
fully, competing with one another for control of wireless. The Weather 
Bureau of the Department of Agriculture, which had begun sponsoring 
Fessenden’s work early in 1900, argued that it had been first in the field. 
The Signal Corps of the U.S. Army, under the direction of General A. W. 
Greely, had already tested and purchased De Forest and Fessenden appa- 
ratus. The navy, which was lagging behind in the race, maintained that 
wireless was best suited for signaling over water and that for national 
security purposes, the navy should control the government’s wireless 
system. 

Roosevelt was determined to end this bureaucratic struggle and to 
consolidate the government’s wireless activities. After six months of 
monitoring the war in the Orient, he announced, on June 26, 1904, the 
appointment of the Interdepartmental Board of Wireless Telegraphy, bet- 
ter known as the Roosevelt Board, to report on the question of consolida- 
tion and management of wireless for the government and “to quiet the 
spirit of competition which has sprung up between three departments of 
the government, each desiring to control the operation of wireless on the 
coasts.” Roosevelt’s pro-navy bias was clear: he appointed to the board 
Rear Admirals Robley D. Evans and Henry N. Manney and Lieutenant 
Commander Joseph L. Jayne of the navy; General Greely of the army; 
and Willis L. Moore, chief of the Weather Bureau. 91 In addition to making 
a recommendation concerning which department should oversee the 
development of wireless, the board was to determine how private com- 
panies and government stations could operate most harmoniously. Roo- 
sevelt also charged the board members with considering the rights of 
inventors and determining the circumstances under which the govern- 
ment could claim a monopoly of the airwaves. A spokesman for the Navy 
Department assured the press that a “government wireless monopoly 
[was] not planned” and that the board would not “seize on the art and 
science of wireless telegraphy.” 92 

In August of 1904 the board members submitted their report. The 
navy, in an effort to keep pace with other navies, was to manage and 
operate the government’s wireless system and begin establishing “a com- 
plete coastwise radio telegraphy system, covering the entire coasts of the 


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Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


United States, its insular possessions and the Canal Zone in Panama.” 
Wireless stations within this system, the board recommended, should 
transmit to or receive messages from ships at sea free of charge, provided 
the navy was not competing with a nearby commercial station. The 
board also suggested that private companies not be allowed to erect 
stations where they might interfere with naval or military operations . 93 
In other words, if the navy erected a station in a particular area first, the 
navy would gain preemptive rights and be able to prevent private com- 
panies from locating in the vicinity. This was no insignificant recommen- 
dation, since the various American companies had only recently begun to 
establish their own stations. The board proposed eliminating the coastal 
stations of the Weather Bureau because the meteorological data neces- 
sary for that department could be collected by stations of the Navy 
Department. The legislation urged by the report would provide for the 
licensing of all private stations and the placement of them under the 
supervision of the Department of Commerce and Labor to prevent “the 
exploitations of speculative schemes based on a public misconception of 
the art” as well as “control by monopolies and trusts .” 94 Despite all this, 
the board’s report reaffirmed that the government did encourage private 
enterprise. 

The board addressed only some of the questions formally assigned 
for its consideration. With board membership stacked in favor of the 
navy, naval control of the government’s wireless was inevitable. The 
board did not tackle the difficult problems of standardization or peaceful 
coexistence between government and private stations. The report issued 
was not in the spirit of the board’s initial assignment, and the contrast 
between the stated intent and the final recommendations angered the 
press and private companies. 

The New York Times described the plan as nothing less than con- 
fiscation. The proposals sounded too much like a government takeover of 
“an art which is yet only in an embryo state of development .” 95 Such 
government control was not part of the American tradition, proclaimed 
the New York Tribune, which predicted that the proposals would be 
unacceptable to the American people . 96 Electrical World, which had 
advocated varying degrees of government regulation, preferably through 
one of the civilian departments, expressed indignation: 

The Navy Department is particularly disqualified at the present time 
from becoming the custodian of wireless. . . . Such a policy cannot be 
too strongly condemned, not only because it involves an extension of 
military authority over what in times of peace is a purely commercial 
function, but because of the deadening effect on development of the art 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


that would inevitably result from bureaucratic control. . . . That such 
development would occur under military domination none, we be- 
lieve, will seriously assert. ... As to the probable result of naval con- 
trol, we need only point to the humiliating rank the Naval Observatory 
holds among similar establishments in this country and throughout the 
world. 97 

Suspicions concerning the board’s motives abounded. Electrical World 
called the national defense argument a pretense designed to “appeal to 
the jingo spirit.” Its editors hoped that the government could “keep the 
etheric peace without owning the entire ether as well as the earth be- 
neath.” 98 The New York Times, in a more moderate tone, endorsed 
Electrical World's position that the government, which might have spe- 
cial needs in time of war, should not “hamper enterprise by unduly 
restricting the application of wireless in time of peace.” 99 In press re- 
leases issued after the board’s report, Fessenden’s company, NESCO, 
claimed that the Commerce Department would in practice only grant 
requests for station sites to the government, and would ignore similar 
commercial requests. “Under these conditions,” NESCO asserted, “the 
wireless companies might just as well go out of business because there 
will be nothing for them to do.” 100 H. J. Glaubitz of NESCO described 
the government’s plan as “a socialistic scheme for stealing property” 
which would not be approved by Congress. 101 

While Glaubitz correctly anticipated congressional response to the 
board’s proposals, not all of the recommendations required legislation for 
adoption. The suggestion that commercial stations be licensed by the 
Department of Commerce and Labor, and the proposed restrictions on 
the location of private stations, would have to be voted on by Congress. 
Building naval wireless stations, however, only required additional ap- 
propriations or, failing that, skillful use of money already available. So 
while the various wireless companies could begin lobbying against the 
proposed legislation, they also had to confront these new naval ambi- 
tions. On the one hand, the navy was going to need more apparatus; on 
the other, it seemed intent on establishing its own network, which 
threatened the civilians with major and possibly crushing competition. 

The board’s recommendation that the navy build a nationwide 
coastal wireless network employing a standardized system brought ad- 
ditional competitive pressures to the navy’s wireless trials scheduled for 
August 1904. The inventors believed that the company that performed 
the best would gain the lion’s share of the government business, and 
possibly even monopolize sales to the navy. They were eager to please. 
The navy, now in a rather commanding position as the government’s 


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Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


primary and growing wireless customer, enjoyed complete control over 
the terms governing the tests and any subsequent contracts. 

The provisions for these tests were different from those of the 1902 
demonstrations. Now all expenses related to the demonstration (except 
expenses incurred in supplying the necessary current) were to be as- 
sumed by the companies. The companies were allowed to send their 
specialists to help with the tests, but the Bureau of Equipment’s operators 
were to be given every opportunity necessary for the bureau to deter- 
mine whether its operators could successfully operate the system. In 
addition, the Americans’ apparatus had to conform to the technical stan- 
dards previously set by Slaby-Arco (a system inferior to and different 
from their own). 102 

As the date for the tests approached, the navy issued an additional 
requirement. Reacting to Marconi Company policy, Lieutenant Jayne 
insisted that the American companies guarantee that their systems could 
maintain communication with any other type of apparatus. Fessenden’s 
sales representative pointed out that NESCO could not possibly make 
such a guarantee, as the company could not be responsible for the perfor- 
mance of competitors’ apparatus. NESCO could not ensure, for example, 
that an 1899 Slaby-Arco filings coherer could detect NESCO transmis- 
sions. NESCO did guarantee that the company’s apparatus would be able 
to communicate with any comparable apparatus, but the navy ada- 
mantly refused to accept such a proviso and insisted it would not do 
business with any firm that could not meet the guarantee provision. 

The American Marconi Company scoffed at the terms set for the 
tests. The company would participate only if the bureau would guaran- 
tee that successful performance would lead to a contract. “In view of the 
fact that we are working on a commercial basis over greater distances 
and under varying conditions all over the world,” wrote Bottomley, “no 
outlay for the purpose of demonstration only commends itself to us.” 103 
The bureau would not consider contingent contracts, and the Marconi 
Company saw no reason to incur an expense that, in its opinion, “would 
be out of proportion to the value of the result.” 104 

Fessenden also chafed at the navy’s approach to the tests. He was 
anxious about the nearly one thousand dollars he estimated the demon- 
strations would cost his small company. He tried to arrange for an alter- 
native method of testing, preferably at his own stations, but the navy 
refused. The bureau wanted to have control over the tests. The navy had 
its own needs and requirements: only by testing wireless on its ships and 
at the navy yards could it determine suitability. Its men had to be able to 
operate the equipment. Continued mistrust of inventors’ claims rein- 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


forced the navy’s desire to test the apparatus on its own turf. As Admiral 
Manney wrote, the bureau preferred “to conduct the tests in its own 
way.” 105 The conditions the navy imposed during these and subsequent 
tests were, from the inventors’ point of view, niggardly and demor- 
alizing. 

The navy demonstrated even less faith in the inventors in negotia- 
tions over purchases and contract specifications. The wireless market 
was still small, and the various inventors competed fiercely against one 
another. Pride as well as money was at stake, and the mutual hostilities 
provided the navy with bargaining advantages. 

Once the navy had decided to acquire apparatus, its first goal was to 
drive down the price, and its policy was to buy from the lowest bidder. 
Barber took great pride in his negotiating skills, reporting that Slaby- 
Arco lost about seven thousand dollars on the first twenty sets it sold the 
navy: “The company inferred from my letters that they were competing 
with other people, especially with Braun-Siemens (I did mislead them 
intentionally in that respect) and the result was an impossibly low bid 
which I accepted by telegraph before they had time to think it over.” 106 
One year later he persuaded Telefunken to lower its price for a strate- 
gically important station by threatening to buy from the French at lower 
prices. Barber exulted: “Evidently they are red hot on the subject and the 
Bureau can name its own figure — It isn’t often that you get a German 
down on his stomach like that.” 107 The navy paid nothing in advance; in 
fact, no payment was sent until the apparatus was installed and operat- 
ing. If the apparatus arrived late or was damaged in transit, or if the 
enlisted men mishandled the installation, the payment to the supplier 
was reduced. 108 While it was clearly in the interest of the navy to obtain 
the best possible price and not pay until the apparatus was working, its 
tactics compounded financial uncertainty for the inventors. 

If an inventor would not reduce his prices, the navy would have a 
competitor copy the invention and supply it at lower cost. This was the 
tactic the inventors found most infuriating. One instance of this tactic 
involved Fessenden, who introduced the navy to his receiver, the elec- 
trolytic detector, during the 1904 demonstrations. Fessenden’s assistant 
wrote that naval officials were “highly pleased with the results,” as 
NESCO had performed “much better than any other system tested by the 
Navy.” 109 Evidence bears this report out: by 1905, the electrolytic detec- 
tor was the navy’s standard receiver. But Fessenden’s prices (two thou- 
sand to five thousand dollars per set) were considered too high, so the 
navy arranged for De Forest (who had already copied Fessenden’s in- 
vention), Telefunken, and Stone to supply imitation receivers at a lower 


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Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


cost. 110 George Clark, one of Stone’s technicians, offered his company’s 
rationale for obliging the navy: “We were really making use of the . . . 
electrolytic detector, but since the U.S. Navy was making free use of 
it ... we felt that we were violating no patent.” 111 Within a year, the 
navy itself began assembling the receiver. 

Fessenden, who after a year of courting military officials thought he 
was “on good terms with them,” was outraged. He knew his apparatus 
was more expensive than that of the Germans, who received govern- 
ment support. Yet he was infuriated at the navy’s seeming failure to 
understand research and development costs and to respect patents. For 
more than two years he wrote bitter letters of complaint to the bu- 
reau. 112 Fessenden notified the Navy Department that the navy was 
buying pirated apparatus and that such transactions were illegal. He 
advised the officials that “one who does not own property is not allowed 
to sell it cheaper than the rightful owner.” 113 The secretary of the navy, 
William Moody, found Fessenden’s letters so “extreme” in their tone that 
he began making inquiries about Fessenden’s character. 114 Meanwhile, 
since he had no basis on which to judge the inventor’s claims, the secre- 
tary suggested that Fessenden prove he was, in fact, the rightful inventor 
and owner of the detector. If the courts upheld Fessenden, then the navy 
would consider his protest carefully. Fessenden filed suit against De For- 
est and Telefunken. After Fessenden’s first victory over De Forest in 
1905, Moody’s successor, Charles Bonaparte, advised Fessenden that the 
victory was not conclusive, and that the department still felt free to buy 
from De Forest. Fessenden won three more consecutive decisions against 
De Forest and considered his victories quite “conclusive.” Secretary Bo- 
naparte, however, now dismissed the importance of the patent suits and 
informed Fessenden that the navy felt “relieved of any moral obligation” 
to honor Fessenden’s claim because his prices were still too high. 115 The 
navy continued to send orders to De Forest, who continued to fill them 
despite the decisions of the court. Fessenden’s only alternative was to 
obtain an injunction and contempt of court citation against De Forest and 
his backer, Abraham White. He did, and their bail was set at ten thousand 
dollars. In addition, they now owed sixteen thousand dollars in fines and 
risked going to jail if they continued making and selling the detector. 116 
In 1905, Fessenden also won his patent suit against Telefunken. 

Fessenden may have expected infringement from a competitor, but 
he was truly offended and disillusioned to have his inventions appropri- 
ated by the government. Throughout 1906, the navy tried to persuade 
Fessenden’s competitors to sell the electrolytic detectors by stating that 
the attorney general had decided that the government “could use the 


• 129 • 


INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


liquid barretter on account of Fessenden’s contract with the Weather 
Bureau.” Fessenden continued to issue complaints to the secretary of the 
navy, the attorney general, and the president of the United States. He 
demanded that Secretary Bonaparte be impeached for knowingly buy- 
ing stolen property. He wrote to the president, saying, “This manufac- 
ture of apparatus by the departments is particularly objectionable be- 
cause the wireless companies threw open their stations to the officers of 
these departments and gave them the fullest information possible with 
the distinct understanding that the information so given was to be treated 
as confidential.” 117 

To inventors, patents were central: patents established priority in 
scientific and technical circles, in history books, and in the courtroom; 
they could ensure an inventor’s prestige and fortunes. With so much 
riding on them, patents were considered inviolate by their owners. The 
navy, on the other hand, believed it could not be constrained by patents; 
in fact, the navy considered itself under no legal obligation to recognize 
patents. Amid all the press releases, claims, charges, and countercharges, 
how could the navy tell who the legitimate patent holder was? The 
navy’s policy was to acquire apparatus “independently of patents.” 118 
The military argued that it was unable to determine priority and could 
not serve as “a court for the settlement of disputed claims as to in- 
ventions.” 119 Barber advised the Bureau of Equipment that he doubted 
whether anyone truly had a defensible patent on a wireless telegraph 
system. He did not think Fessenden, who was threatening to sue the 
government for back royalties, should be taken seriously: “I doubt if any 
of the present owners of wireless telegraph patents will ever do anything 
more than they have done in serving these preliminary notices.” 120 Fes- 
senden’s threats against the navy were empty; the government at this 
time could not be sued for using patents without permission. 

Throughout 1903 and 1904, Fessenden and his backers, Given and 
Walker, had disagreed about how to negotiate with the navy. Despite the 
navy’s testing and contract terms, Fessenden had favored accommodat- 
ing the navy and offering it NESCO apparatus at reduced prices to initiate 
what he hoped would be a close and lasting relationship between the 
two organizations. Walker and Given, who wanted more immediate 
returns on their investment and who were becoming increasingly exas- 
perated with the navy’s procedures, favored maintaining their prices — 
by early 1905, $12,500 per set. 121 By late 1904 and early 1905, with the 
navy both buying from competitors and making the electrolytic detector 
itself, Fessenden, too, had had enough. In fact, NESCO’s experience with 
the navy no doubt contributed to Given and Walker’s determination not 


• 130 • 



Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


to sell apparatus to anyone, but instead to sell the entire system. By 1905, 
NESCO refused to have any further dealings with the navy. “If we do not 
communicate any more of our inventions to the government,” wrote 
Fessenden, “the government cannot steal them.” 122 The entire affair left 
him angry, bitter, and defensive. 

The navy’s efforts to circumvent Fessenden’s patents and make use of 
his detector represented, to the inventor, not just a legal outrage, but a 
technological affront, as well. The navy was indicating that it wanted to 
buy only components, not entire wireless systems. The debate over 
whether wireless was a system, and whether different wireless systems 
existed, provided another source of controversy between several of the 
inventors and the navy. Since 1900, the Marconi Company’s strategy had 
been to market wireless as a complete system or network. The company 
would erect the shore stations, equip the ships, and establish channels for 
communication. Other companies tried to follow suit. Although this 
systems policy was motivated primarily by business considerations, 
technical considerations played an important part, as well. 

In each competing wireless set, the various components were care- 
fully engineered and adjusted with the efficient operation of the entire 
system in mind. From the number of turns in the induction coil, to the 
type and number of condensers, to the aerial arrangement, all the inter- 
connections were designed to meet the system’s special needs. Chances 
were excellent that rival apparatus would not integrate well into a 
competing system and would cause poor performance. For example, a 
very sensitive and reliable detector that was connected to incompatible 
or second-rate headphones would function below its capabilities. No 
inventor could allow alien and possibly inferior components to discredit 
his system or the merits of wireless. Inventors were trying to protect 
their business, but they also took pride in the distinctiveness of their 
apparatus and recoiled at the thought of it being dismantled and recom- 
bined with competitors’ devices. 

The navy preferred to regard wireless components as individual 
inventions like telephones or light bulbs. The navy considered the in- 
ventors’ systems rationale nothing more than a justification for monopo- 
ly, but by 1904 it recognized that control over the technical system 
brought control over the airwaves. Consequently, the navy determined 
to buy components and establish its own “composite” system instead of 
buying any of the competing systems being offered by the inventors. As 
the chief of the bureau advised Barber in 1902: “It is proposed to conduct 
tests of composite sets, made up of portions supplied by different makers 
and such a combination may be adopted as standard for the service in 


■ 131 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


case it is found to work better than an entire set supplied by a single 
maker.” 123 

The Bureau of Equipment, which did not think civilian “square- 
heads” were attuned to the needs of the navy, and which may have 
wanted, out of pride, to develop its own system, no doubt sought to 
achieve standardization through the composite route. The bureau was 
also trying to reduce technical uncertainty. If it mastered the compo- 
nents and designed its own system, it could better anticipate or avoid 
overly rapid technological turnover. Certainly, if the navy intended to 
gain hegemony in America’s airwaves, it had to believe that it, and not 
a civilian, controlled the technology that provided access. But acquiring 
various components and implementing a composite system were two 
very different processes. As Walker complained in 1905, “The govern- 
ment gets a kind of a hotch-potch of a system that is not the best and is 
no credit to anyone.” 124 Nevertheless, the navy began acquiring appa- 
ratus, assembling its “hotchpotch” system, and erecting stations, pri- 
marily at navy yards and lighthouses around the country. 

One of the areas the navy targeted for wireless was the Caribbean. 
Mahan and his disciple Roosevelt were convinced of the strategic impor- 
tance of the Caribbean area, and American expansion in the region had 
been dramatic in the late 1890s and early 1900s. By 1904, coaling sta- 
tions were established, Cuba and Puerto Rico were under American 
control, and plans for the Panama Canal were well underway; the ne- 
cessity of a communications network linking the various American out- 
posts was clear. The navy, no doubt eager to buttress its bargaining 
position on the Roosevelt Board, began entertaining bids for four high- 
power stations in Key West, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Canal Zone in 
the spring of 1904. The contracting company was to guarantee the ability 
“to maintain at all times communication and under all atmospheric condi- 
tions between stations 1000 miles apart.” The navy specified thaj the 
contractor was to complete the installations within six months of the 
date of the contract. The navy would provide the power, the aerials, and 
the buildings, and it was responsible for transporting the equipment to all 
the locations except Florida. 125 

De Forest, citing his overland successes and gold medals from the 
St. Louis World’s Fair, assured naval officials he could cover the great 
distances required, and submitted a bid for $65,000. Fessenden bid 
$324,000. De Forest won the contract, which was signed in late June of 
1904, just as the Roosevelt Board was about to convene. In addition to 
providing various guarantees, De Forest had to put up a bond of more 
than $16,000 which would be forfeited if he did not complete the sta- 


■ 132 ■ 



Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


tions on time and meet all the other terms of the contract. 126 De Forest 
would not be paid until all the stations were working satisfactorily. 
While the navy’s desire to ensure good performance was certainly un- 
derstandable, these were very stringent requirements to impose on a 
small company erecting radio stations far away from its base of opera- 
tions and sources of supply. The territory was unknown to De Forest, 
and there were more and more reports that static was particularly re- 
lentless in the tropical regions. No one, anywhere, was maintaining “at 
all times” communication a distance of one thousand miles. Even Barber 
questioned the navy’s specifications: “When 1 said some time ago that I 
did not think that his contract with the Department was legal, I meant 
that if it came into court, the court would decide against the 
Department.” 127 

De Forest began working on the Caribbean stations in January 
1905. His working conditions were extremely unpleasant and difficult; 
he described the Cuban station as the “hellhole of wireless.” Cyclones, 
lightning, gales, and earthquakes often destroyed the recently completed 
stations and aerials. 128 In addition, the navy was slow in sending equip- 
ment and supplies, and De Forest could not meet the six-month deadline. 
He complained about the “delays of months” and the “breakdowns of 
Navy apparatus,” and he was demoralized by the “hostility, open or 
concealed, on the part of officials, from whom [he] had every reason to 
expect cooperation and interest.” He warned his attorney that the navy 
might charge that De Forest had fallen down on the contract, and said 
that the company should protest this charge. Revealing his antimilitary 
prejudices, De Forest wrote: “If the Navy, through their cheap outfits and 
red tape[,J delay our success, we will not let their still cheaper officers 
with more gold tape than brains throw the hooks into us.” 129 Abraham 
White convinced the Navy Department that his company should not be 
held responsible for the delays, and by early 1906, all the stations were 
completed. They were, however, failures. De Forest had difficulty main- 
taining a transmission range of two hundred miles at night, and during 
the day transmission was usually impossible. 130 These stations did not 
perform according to the contract specifications and could not have im- 
proved the navy’s opinion of wireless. About one year later, George H. 
Clark, then an employee of Stone Telegraph and Telephone, went to 
experiment with and make improvements on the navy’s New Orleans 
and Pensacola stations. Clark was only allowed to experiment during the 
day, when static was at its worst. He could not test the system at night, 
because the lighting system of the navy yards were powered by the same 
mains that fed the wireless transmitters, and if Clark transmitted at night, 


• 133 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


the lights in the commandant’s home flickered and dimmed. 131 Like De 
Forest, Clark was caught between one faction in the navy that wanted 
wireless improved, and a much larger group of officers who were not 
about to be inconvenienced to achieve such a seemingly farfetched goal. 

By 1906, then, certain naval officers were determined to establish an 
extensive wireless network along America’s coasts and on its new pos- 
sessions which would be capable of exchanging messages with the ships 
of the new navy. The apparatus installed in all these stations, while 
consisting of components invented by civilians, would be arranged and 
assembled according to naval needs and specifications. These naval of- 
ficers — Barber, Bradford, and the handful of other men interested in 
wireless — were not opposed to a monopoly of wireless, they were only 
opposed to a civilian monopoly. They came to believe strongly that, like 
the European governments, the American government was entitled to 
control its nation’s wireless; furthermore, they believed that the navy 
should be the agent of that control. The U.S. Navy had acquired a signifi- 
cant amount of new property in the past ten years: new ships, coaling 
stations, and bases. Like any organization, it was proud of its new role 
and influence and jealous of its latest acquisitions. As the naval officers 
directly involved in the acquisition and international regulation of wire- 
less came to share the European perception that the ether represented a 
territory of national importance, they wanted to acquire dominion over 
this possession, as well. Ironically, they wanted what they condemned 
Marconi for pursuing: a monopoly of the airwaves. 

While certain navy men hoped to thwart Marconi’s corporate ambi- 
tions and to establish a strong American military presence in the ether, 
many others remained completely indifferent or hostile to such goals. A 
review- of how the navy first tried to utilize the new invention illustrates 
how individuals and the organizational structure of which they were 
part compromised the usefulness of wireless. When the first twenty 
Slaby-Arco sets were ordered from Germany, there were no naval en- 
gineers who knew how to install them properly. In the summer of 1903, 
there were only eight enlisted men capable of taking charge of a sta- 
tion. 132 There were no wireless operators on board ship. And few com- 
manders welcomed the apparatus. As L. S. Howeth has written, “No 
serious effort was made by the various commanders to organize, utilize, 
or supervise radio communication within the fleet.” 133 These men, es- 
pecially out at sea, enjoyed complete control of their ships, and they did 
not want that authority subverted by wireless. This invention threat- 
ened to render their leadership merely titular. As George Clark observed, 
“The traditional power of a commanding officer to do as he felt best with 


• 134 • 



Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


his ship or command as soon as he got out of sight of land would have 
been completely wiped out if someone in the Bureau of Navigation or 
elsewhere could give him orders. So often the instructions to the wireless 
room were to shut down the wireless and not acknowledge calls from 
shore at all.” 134 

Flag lieutenants were to supervise wireless on board ship, but they 
knew nothing about the equipment and had no incentive to learn. Wire- 
less was installed below decks to protect the apparatus from the rigors of 
battle. Did that mean that the flag lieutenant would be consigned to a 
remote cabin, away from the captain and the action on the bridge? This 
prospect was hardly appealing and was quite naturally opposed. One 
flag lieutenant, T. P. Magruder, while inspecting a new installation on his 
ship, objected to the “unsymmetrical appearance” the antenna wires and 
guys produced and ordered the lines and wires realigned to parallel the 
rest of the ship’s rigging. The new arrangement significantly reduced the 
efficiency of the apparatus. When it was suggested that the new arrange- 
ment rendered the sets nearly useless, Magruder said he “didn’t give a 
damn about wireless . . . but he did give a damn for the appearance of 
the ship.” 135 

The performance of wireless was also affected by the ability of the 
enlisted men and the quality of the facilities available for maintenance 
and repair of the apparatus. Lieutenant J. M. Hudgins, who had helped 
Barber investigate European apparatus, complained to the secretary in 
1904: “We are not getting one-half the service possible out of the appa- 
ratus in use, owing to the lack of skilled operators.” He warned that few 
of the men assigned to take charge of the navy’s new stations were 
qualified for such duty, particularly since they had no experience adjust- 
ing or making quick repairs to the sets. 136 Strong criticism of the oper- 
ators’ general incompetence came from both civilian and military quar- 
ters and persisted for ten years. 137 

The navy’s methods of installing and maintaining wireless also un- 
dercut the value of the equipment it acquired. Wireless was installed 
aboard ships while they were docked at the New York Navy Yard or the 
Washington Navy Yard. The apparatus theoretically could be repaired at 
any navy yard. The yards were also the sites for navy shore stations. The 
nature of the work and supervision at the yards did not promise to 
provide wireless with a favorable environment, however. Administra- 
tion of the navy yards epitomized the department’s decentralized struc- 
ture and management. Although nominally controlled by the Bureau of 
Yards and Docks, the yards contained offices and staffs affiliated with and 
loyal to the other bureaus. Predictably, this led to confusion and waste. 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


For example, several different engineering departments and machine 
shops, each working for a different bureau, were dispersed throughout a 
yard. This arrangement militated against a concentration of effort and a 
sharing of expertise. 138 The inexperienced operators charged with in- 
stalling and repairing wireless would have carried out their duties more 
efficiently had they been part of a unified engineering department at the 
yard. Under the existing arrangement, they had little supervision and 
often found themselves caught between conflicting orders, one set from 
the Bureau of Equipment, another from the commandant of the yard. 139 
No technical standardization or uniformity existed between navy yards; 
disregarding whatever standard plans the bureau may have tried to 
issue, each navy yard pursued its own method of wireless installation 
and repair. 140 

Exacerbating this lack of continuity and fragmentation was what 
the navy called its composite system of wireless. Composite did not mean 
that the navy used only one kind of transmitter or one kind of receiver 
connected according to standard specifications. The navy concocted 
these systems from whatever components were available at the time at 
the lowest price, and left it to the operators to place them together. This 
encouraged untrained and inexperienced men to tinker with the apparat- 
us and to conduct their own trial-and-error experiments. The use of the 
composite system also meant that, often, an operator transferred from 
one yard to another or from one ship to another “had to learn an entirely 
different run of wiring and placement of apparatus.” 141 The composite 
system and the independence of each navy yard and of each wireless 
station led to a proliferation of different wireless sets throughout the 
service. The chief of the Bureau of Equipment in 1907 described the costs 
resulting from lack of supervision and standardization: “Certain oper- 
ators when first ordered to a station, and who were perhaps familiar 
with other systems, would not use that provided but improvised systems 
of their own. The original instruments would thus fall into disuse and 
deteriorate, and when these operators were detached they would take 
away the improvised instruments. The stations would thus remain ineffi- 
cient for a considerable period and in some cases could hardly be oper- 
ated at all until new instruments were provided.” 142 Inventors were 
exasperated by the situation, which they believed caused their apparatus 
to be abused. 143 One company claimed that some apparatus it had loaned 
to the navy was in such poor condition on its return the company had to 
discard it “as a lot of junk.” 144 

Some navy yards, particularly those on the West Coast, complained 
of hand-me-down equipment and unsuitable facilities. Once a ship or 


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Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


station was equipped, little effort was made to update its apparatus. The 
commandant of the Mare Island Navy Yard suggested in 1904 that the 
yard’s wireless station be moved from the deteriorating pigeon coop in 
which it had first been installed. 145 Six years later, it was too dangerous 
for operators to work in the wireless building, the building was so 
decrepit and leaky. 146 Inhospitable conditions existed in wireless sta- 
tions in navy yards throughout the country, and as the years passed, 
conditions worsened. By 1909, the Bureau of Equipment was receiving 
reports from dozens of navy yards criticizing the barely functioning, 
obsolete, and poorly maintained wireless sets at the shore stations. 147 

Indeed, as late as 1912, wireless was passed down the naval hier- 
archy until it was housed in the least desirable facilities and used by the 
men with the least power and responsibility, the enlisted men. Wireless 
had reached an organizational dead end. Not until 1912 would critical 
realignments take place which would promote the invention’s integra- 
tion into naval structure. While certain naval officers argued for Ameri- 
can military control of wireless similar to that enjoyed by European 
military organizations, their arguments before Congress were undercut 
by frequent reports of the poor performance of military operators and 
apparatus. Several officers continued to lobby for such control, and their 
effort intensified after the second International Wireless Conference, 
which took place in Berlin in October 1906. 

Because nothing had been solved at the first International Wireless 
Conference, and because the use of wireless during the Russo-Japanese 
War had generated new diplomatic problems, the Germans called a sec- 
ond conference. In September, just before the meeting, the Institute of 
International Law in Ghent, Belgium, adopted rules governing the use of 
wireless during war. Captured wireless operators were to be treated as 
prisoners of war rather than as spies. Neutral ships and balloons that had 
been used to furnish an adversary with information helpful in the con- 
duct of hostilities could be removed from the zone of hostilities and the 
aggrieved government could seize any wireless apparatus found on 
board. A neutral state had the right to close or take over the wireless 
station of a belligerent operating in the neutral state’s territory. 148 The 
adoption of these regulations, which helped set the tone for the con- 
ference, provided official recognition that wireless was an important 
weapon and that certain transmitters, innocent though they might be, 
could be restrained by the different warring states. Most significantly, the 
regulations established that each nation had its own territorial radius in 
the ether and that violation of this invisible realm was as unacceptable as 
any other incursion. 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


In Berlin, the twenty-seven countries attending the second con- 
ference faced old and new dilemmas. What constituted a satisfactory 
arrangement between private wireless companies and government sta- 
tions during war and during peace? Should all seacoast wireless stations 
be tuned to one or two different wave bands so ships could quickly locate 
a shore station in an emergency? Should standard and separate interna- 
tional wavelengths for mercantile vessels and navy vessels be estab- 
lished in order to avoid friction and ensure safety? The different nations 
had to agree on a universal distress call. They also had to decide whether 
an international wireless bureau such as that proposed by Germany 
could fairly and equitably arbitrate international disputes. 149 

Yet, as in 1903, one issue dominated: Was the Marconi Company 
entitled to communicate only with its own stations and with no others? 
Editorials had been appearing in the American press for months insisting 
that life and property depended on free intercommunications. Diplo- 
matic pressure to thwart the Marconi Company’s monopolistic practices 
had also been intense since the 1903 conference. The Marconi Com- 
pany’s wireless station on the Nantucket lightship had come under attack 
with increasing frequency because of the station’s refusal to exchange 
messages with those operating rival systems. After the Deutschland inci- 
dent, the German ambassador in Washington, Baron von Sternberg, reg- 
istered complaints about the exclusionary practices of this important 
station and charged that the efforts of the Marconi Company to establish 
a worldwide monopoly resulted in “most serious injury to the interests 
of German shipping and commerce.” 150 As a result, in November 1904, 
American diplomatic officials had ordered the Nantucket station to ex- 
change messages with all systems. Attorneys for American Marconi an- 
swered that the company refused to comply, insisting that such a proviso 
was unnecessary because there was “not a single transatlantic liner 
equipped with apparatus other than Marconi.” 151 However, American 
officials feared a British monopoly, as well, and they directed the Marconi 
Company to remove its wireless system from the lightship. The navy 
took over the installation, equipped it with Telefunken apparatus, and 
announced that the station would be available for commercial use with 
any other wireless system. 

Three of the four American delegates in Berlin were military men, 
two from the navy and one from the army, and over time the sentiments 
of these men had become increasingly anti-Marconi. Marconi was ex- 
pected to have few allies at the conference. Barber, anticipating the tone 
of the meetings, predicted that most of the delegates would be govern- 
ment officials who had “small consideration for the private business- 
man.” 152 When the American delegates arrived in Berlin, they quickly 


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Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


endorsed the mandatory ship-to-shore intercommunication resolution 
and submitted a motion for compulsory ship-to-ship intercommunica- 
tion. Participants and correspondents expected this to be Germany’s first 
motion, and America’s preemptive strike reportedly “came as a ‘regular 
bombshell.’ ” 153 Few had anticipated that the Americans would assume 
an activist role. Britain offered a compromise, agreeing to accept com- 
pulsory intercommunication between ship and ship on matters pertain- 
ing to navigation alone. But, as the New York Times reported, the 
“United States delegates declined to agree to the compromise, affirming 
that they were willing to stand or fall on the principle of intercom- 
munication.” 154 They were joined in this resolve by the German dele- 
gates and all the others except those from Britain, Italy, and Japan. Dele- 
gates from these three countries were often deliberately ignored by the 
others during the conference to illustrate what might happen on the high 
seas to countries that refused to abide by the free intercommunication 
policy. The German representatives used tactics that were less subtle: 
they threatened that their new technology enabled them to destroy 
every message in the air and wipe out all their rivals’ transmissions, and 
that German operators might resort to this tactic if necessary. 155 

The compromise that emerged required every public shore station 
“to exchange wireless communication with each and every wirelessly 
equipped ship, and vice-versa, without regard to the system of wireless 
telegraphy used by either.” 156 Under this agreement, ships at sea could 
always communicate with a shore station, and no ship would be ren- 
dered incommunicado, as the Deutschland had been. To mollify the Mar- 
coni Company, a schedule of charges per word, over and above the 
regular land charges, was established at the convention. Barber reported 
with obvious satisfaction: “The Marconi monopoly is not dead: but it is 
mortally wounded.” 157 

At this point the 1906 conference began tackling other substantive 
issues that the 1903 conference had left unresolved. With the intercom- 
munication issue settled in its favor, the German delegation, which rep- 
resented German military interests, worked to codify other features of 
wireless communication to bolster military control. The German efforts 
were supported by the Americans, who had gained influence and respect 
at the conference in part because they appeared to have no financial or 
political interest in the outcome. Like the Germans, however, the Ameri- 
can delegates wanted to secure, through law, military priority in the 
ether. To that end they supported the revolutionary German proposal 
that the ether be divided into regions by wave lengths, with the military 
getting the largest and the best tracts. 

At this stage in wireless communications, in the early 1900s, experi- 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


menters used wavelengths of approximately 300 to 1,600 meters. Mar- 
coni continued to move toward using longer wavelengths, which he 
believed traveled farther and encountered less congestion. The Germans 
recommended a range of 600 to 1,600 meters for naval and government 
use and 300 meters for merchant ships and commercial stations. Com- 
mercial stations could use other wavelengths, but none exceeding 600 
meters. Not surprisingly, the Marconi Company strongly opposed the 
assignment of these shorter wavelengths to private stations. At first read- 
ing, the allocation appeared to be a reasonable initial step toward divid- 
ing the spectrum into more manageable zones and preventing inter- 
ference between government and commercial stations. However, the 
various government stations had use of the longer, more desirable wave- 
lengths, which traveled farther. In England, except for naval stations, 
most of the ships and shore stations were equipped and operated by the 
Marconi Company, whereas in Germany, all the stations were govern- 
ment owned and operated. This apparently impartial assignment of 300 
to 600 meters to the commercial stations was an attempt by the German 
military to relegate Marconi and most of the major British stations to the 
inferior portion of the spectrum. The American delegates supported this 
allocation, hoping it would help ease the U.S. Navy into a preeminent 
position in American wireless: the navy hoped to gain through regula- 
tion what it had failed to achieve technically. 

The delegates worked out other regulations. All ship stations were 
to be licensed by the country under whose flag they sailed. Shipboard 
operators were to be licensed after having passed an examination on 
signaling and apparatus construction and operation. These operators 
had to be able to transmit at a speed of at least twelve words per min- 
ute. Each ship would take a three-letter call number assigned by its 
government. The delegates affirmed that distress messages had priority 
over all others, as did certain government messages relating to naviga- 
tion information and weather conditions at sea. Wireless operators had 
to take an oath of secrecy which bound them to protect the privacy of 
wireless messages. 158 

Few of these resolutions were achieved without German-British 
friction. While the debate over compulsory intercommunication received 
the most publicity, the delegates from the two rival countries also bick- 
ered over the less weighty details, even over the selection of an interna- 
tional distress code. Britain preferred its own CQ (supposedly from 
“seek you”), but agreed to add a d to the end to reduce the possibility of 
error. The Germans insisted on SOE, their distress call. However, be- 
cause the letter e was only one dot, it could conceivably get lost during 


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Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


transmission. The delegates finally agreed on SOS as the distress code, 
and by 1908 most of the participating nations had adopted it. In his first 
transatlantic tests, Marconi had decided to use the letter s because it was 
easy to send and to decipher. SOS was settled on for this reason, and not, 
as the popular press liked to suggest, because it meant “save our souls.” 

Although the deadline for ratification of the treaty that emerged 
from the conference was July 1908, most of the participating countries, 
including even England, ratified the treaty within a year and a half after 
the end of the conference. The British delegates had been stubborn dur- 
ing the 1906 negotiations, and anti-ratification sentiment in Great Britain 
was strong. British newspapers were filled with articles and anonymous 
letters (some obviously from the Marconi Company) denouncing the 
proposals and generating “a prejudice . . . against the Kaiser’s pro- 
posal.” 159 The Marconi Company charged that because the treaty made 
intercommunication between various systems obligatory, it represented 
“an enforced partnership to which the Marconi Companies contribute 
everything and the German manufacturers of wireless apparatus noth- 
ing, neither invention nor capital, nor skillful enterprise. In short, the 
German company proposed to obtain artificially, through international 
legislation, the advantage of the position obtained by the Marconi Com- 
pany in open competition and by private effort at private expense.” 160 
Marconi and his representatives lobbied fervently against the treaty in 
the editorial pages and in Parliament. However, British government 
officials determined that not signing the 1906 treaty would be eco- 
nomically and strategically unwise. Bowing to international pressure, 
government officials negotiated with the Marconi Company and agreed 
to compensate the company, through a three-year subsidy, for any loss it 
might suffer as a result of the international agreement. After an impas- 
sioned debate, Parliament ratified the agreement by a margin of one 
vote. 161 

Because the American delegates had been so outspoken and influen- 
tial in molding the treaty, its ratification by the United States was, to the 
Europeans, a foregone conclusion. The Europeans, however, were mis- 
taken. The American delegates had to sell the resolutions to a Congress 
and a country that were ill disposed toward government, and especially 
military, control of private industry; furthermore, the U.S. Congress was 
not interested in expanding the new navy’s influence. These were also 
proposals sanctioned by the Kaiser, whose image in the American press 
had deteriorated markedly during the first decade of the century. Al- 
though the Kaiser was a great fan of Roosevelt’s, and often referred to 
him as the greatest American president who ever lived, the press mis- 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


trusted the Kaiser’s motives and described him as the dictator or chief of 
police of Europe. 162 One popular magazine, Lippincott’s, even published 
an article titled “Is Kaiser Wilhelm II of Normal Mind?” 163 The Kaiser’s 
relentless militarism and imperious manner prompted many to view him, 
and any treaties he might endorse, with suspicion. 

The 1906 treaty represented a European approach to resolving con- 
flict in the ether. It was spawned by European suspicions and rivalries, 
which were exacerbated by the geographical proximity of the contes- 
tants. It embodied the assumption that the ether was a strategically vital 
territory to be cordoned off, a territory best patrolled by military au- 
thorities. It imposed on “the air” military perimeters beyond which 
civilians were not to trespass. These assumptions and solutions may have 
served European needs, but they did not find a very receptive audience in 
America. The United States was not surrounded by rival nations whose 
wireless transmissions were a source of annoyance or paranoia. Our 
ether was as open as the West had once been. Hence, the opposition to 
cordoning it off prematurely and making the navy its custodian was 
opposition to be reckoned with. 


THE POWER OF MARCONI’S assumption — that the ether could be mo- 
nopolized for corporate profit and British imperial desires — was evident 
from the quick and vehement response that assumption provoked. As the 
U.S. Navy and its European counterparts constructed official reactions to 
Marconi’s business policies, the ideological battle lines about how wire- 
less should be used were drawn and redrawn. Also emerging were 
starkly competing notions about whether the ether was primarily pri- 
vate or government property. That it was property of some sort, despite 
the fact that it could not be seen, touched, or measured, was becoming 
clear. Marconi conceived of the ether as a resource he could monopolize, 
whereas military men regarded the airwaves as a part of their govern- 
ment’s territory which they had a duty, and a right, to occupy and pro- 
tect. The contest, one that was to persist, was between a capitalist and a 
military mindset. 

To the press, the choice was clear. Newspapers and magazines stood 
to benefit financially from the private cultivation of wireless; the last 
thing they wanted was for the government to gain control of such an 
invention and restrict its benefits to military applications. It is not surpris- 
ing, then, that the press condemned the Roosevelt board’s proposals for a 
de facto navy takeover of American wireless. Allied with the press were 
the independent inventors, who had as yet received little patronage from 


• 142 • 



Wireless Telegraphy in the New Navy 


the navy, and whose hopes for financial success would be dashed by 
naval control. The economic self-interest of both the inventors and the 
press is evident; but, as ardent believers in the connections between 
private enterprise and progress, both groups, in truth, seriously doubted 
whether the navy could promote technological advances. 

As foreign governments and the U.S. Navy worked out their rela- 
tionships with wireless inventors between 1899 and 1906, important 
precedents were set. The international scope of the dilemma of managing 
the ether was recognized, and Western countries settled on the mecha- 
nism of the international conference to arbitrate competing claims. In the 
United States, the press came out squarely against any government con- 
trol of America’s wireless systems, and, more importantly, the U.S. Navy 
cultivated a strong negative reaction against the Marconi Company, a 
reaction that in the years ahead would shape the destiny of radio in 
America. 


■ 143 « 



CHAPTER FIVE 


INVENTORS AS ENTREPRENEURS 

Success and Failure in the Wireless Business 

1906-1912 


IF ONE WERE TO SCAN the newspaper headlines between 1906 and 
1911, and base an assessment of wireless telegraphy’s technical and 
corporate progress on the coverage the invention and its promoters re- 
ceived, one would have to conclude that this was a period of little 
accomplishment. Such a conclusion would be quite mistaken, however, 
for during this period, when the press became more critical of the in- 
vention, when journalistic visions of its applications were more circum- 
scribed, and when the press ignored fundamental developments in wire- 
less design and management, major technical breakthroughs occurred 
which would lay the groundwork for radio broadcasting. Also ignored 
was the manner in which the various inventors linked their technical 
work to their business strategies between 1906 and 1911, making deci- 
sions that determined which companies gained — and which companies 
lost — control of radio technology. 

These were not insignificant developments. Yet, changes in wireless 
apparatus and in the everyday behind-the-scenes operations of the fledg- 
ling wireless firms were not, according to prevailing journalistic conven- 
tions, big news stories. They did not take place in public settings, they did 
not involve “the people”: they lacked human interest. In its constant 
search for the new, the unusual, the romantic, and the dramatic, the 
press, when it did cover wireless during this period, focused on stories of 
shipwrecks in which wireless saved lives, and on the growing group of 
“amateur operators” who adopted wireless sending and receiving as a 
hobby. The journalistic bias toward staged, public demonstrations, and 
toward framing technical change in terms of how it immediately affected 
the lives of middle-class consumers, meant that incremental technical and 


• 144 • 


Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


managerial changes would not receive much attention. This bias was 
reinforced by a newfound wariness of the claims of wireless inventors. 
The same press that, in 1899, had painted such flamboyant images of 
wireless telegraphy’s promise now took the inventors to task for failing 
to turn prediction into reality. 

In fact, by 1906, after seven years of increasingly intense commercial 
and technical development, the prospects for wireless telegraphy in 
America seemed gloomy when compared with the hopeful outlook of 
1899. As with earlier inventions, such as Edison’s phonograph and light 
bulb, public expectations as shaped by the press had outdistanced actual 
achievement. 1 The inventors had helped paint the visions of the future of 
wireless, but as yet the inventors had left these visions unfulfilled. Mar- 
coni’s transatlantic wireless service, which was supposed to bring Eu- 
rope and America closer together by dramatically reducing the cost of 
transoceanic communication, and which seemed imminent in 1902, was 
not yet established. Although Marconi still garnered occasional front- 
page headlines, as when he sent a message to the New York Tribune from 
the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in 1904, none of his public successes 
could compare with his debut at the yacht races or the transatlantic 
achievements. Instead of promoting world peace, wireless had exacer- 
bated the prevailing xenophobia and was now the subject of interna- 
tional debate and rivalry. Furthermore, its potential for keeping the peace 
remained unproven, whereas it had already been used as a strategic 
weapon in the Russo-Japanese War. 

The invention’s performance also led to disappointment. The press 
had envisioned that wireless would free reporters and other people from 
dependence on the existing wired networks of the telegraph and tele- 
phone: with wireless, people could send messages whenever and to 
whomever they wanted without going through Western Union or Bell 
Telephone. Reporters had initially suggested, based on Marconi’s own 
assessments, that there were enough “waves” and “tunes” available in 
the ether to allow plenty of room for everyone. 

Ray Stannard Baker, writing for McClure’s in 1902, predicted that a 
range of users, including “great telegraph companies,” “important gov- 
ernments of the world,” and “the great banking and business houses, or 
even families and friends,” would “each have its own wireless system 
with its own secret tune.” 2 This had not come to pass. Instead, the 
diplomatic and commercial contests over the transmission of wireless 
messages indicated that there was room in the ether not for many, but 
only for a few. The spark transmitters in use were still crude, sending out 
broad-banded waves that made very inefficient use of the spectrum and 


• 145 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


produced considerable interference. In addition, all the users agreed that 
some portions of the spectrum were more desirable than others. These 
wavelengths, 600 to .3,000 meters, were the ones most operators pre- 
ferred, and the ones the Marconi Company and its opponents fought 
over. In the United States, with the navy and the American companies 
vying for a foothold in the ether, interference worsened, as did antag- 
onism over who had priority when and where. 

In the press and among potential clients of wireless, the message to 
inventors was clear: live up to your promises by giving customers equip- 
ment that will allow them to use the ether without having to compete for 
access or to contend with interference all the time. Between 1906 and 
1911, as Fessenden, De Forest, and Stone sought to refine their apparatus 
and consolidate their businesses, they all confronted increased skepticism 
in the press, and ambiguous, unsettling reactions to wireless in the mar- 
ketplace. Wireless was still intriguing, but now there were questions 
about how seriously the invention should be taken. 

Such questions had been raised several years earlier in the technical 
press. Electrical World in 1902 had lectured impatiently about the need 
for tuning: “Truth to tell, it is about time for syntonic working to fish, cut 
bait or go ashore. ... If the rival wireless systems can really avoid 
interference with each other and live like Christians in peace and con- 
cord, it is high time that they did it.” 3 One year later, the London Electri- 
cian, in a sarcastic editorial about the state of the art, imagined that 
wireless was in use and then the cable was invented: “With what rap- 
turous delight would that new invention be hailed the world over! The 
electric cable — that takes the message straight to its destination, and does 
not allow' it to be scattered in all directions — the speedy, certain, secret 
electric cable! What a marvelous improvement upon the ether wave!” 4 
Now the popular press, which had at first been more enthusiastic, even 
credulous, about wireless, also began to emphasize the invention’s draw- 
backs. The coverage Marconi received when he finally established his 
transatlantic wireless service in 1907 reflected the new caution. 

On October 17, 1907, the front-page headlines of the New York 
Times proclaimed “Wireless Joins Two Worlds.” After six years of work, 
Marconi and his assistants had established a daily, 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., 
transatlantic wireless service, which the Times hailed as a monumental 
achievement. Transmission speed at such powerful stations was still a 
slow twenty words a minute, because the telegraph keys were huge and 
difficult to manipulate, and the operators could only receive one message 
at a time. But the Marconi Company charged the press five cents a word 
and all others ten cents a word, as compared with the cable companies’ 


■ 146 ■ 



Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


fee of twenty-five cents. 5 This dramatic savings prompted the New York 
Times, Marconi’s faithful booster, to compare once again Marconi’s pro- 
gressive approach and the arrogance of the cable companies. 

There has been no reduction in the cost to the public of cable commu- 
nication for the past score of years. This has not only been a distinct 
hindrance to the development of business, but it has been a hindrance 
to that improvement in the relations of nations to each other. The cable 
companies have been as incapable of improvement as the Martian 
canals, and were managed with about as much reference to the needs 
and wishes of the population on earth . 6 

The Times contracted with Marconi for a regular wireless press service, 
and the Marconi Company reciprocated by arranging for the first west- 
ward transatlantic message to be sent to the Times from its London 
correspondent. Beginning in October of 1907, the paper published a 
special and exclusive “Marconi Transatlantic Wireless Dispatches” sec- 
tion every Sunday. 7 

Except in the Times, however, press accounts of the achievement 
were more guarded, and even more critical, than previously. The New 
York Tribune, which also gave Marconi front-page coverage under the 
headlines “Wireless Messages Sent across Ocean” and “Marconi System 
in Successful Operation,” balanced this story with a cautionary editorial. 
The story quoted John Bottomley as saying “The system as established is 
an absolute success, all the rumors about interference with and intercep- 
tion of messages are rot, for under our system the ‘tuning’ is such that 
interception is practically impossible.” The paper’s editors remained un- 
convinced, and instead of celebrating the beginning of a new era, they 
warned of the limitations still imposed by interference and the possible 
“stealing” of messages. 8 

The only two popular magazines featuring stories on the service 
were the Outlook and World’s Work. The Outlook observed: “Mr. Mar- 
coni has certainly accomplished a wonderful achievement; but there are 
two problems which remain to be solved before long-distance wireless 
telegraphy will realize its greatest usefulness.” Those problems were the 
slow speed of transmission and the fact that messages could still be 
overheard or stolen. 9 World’s Work inadvertently suggested one reason 
the democratic visions of 1901 were not repeated. Marconi’s accomplish- 
ment, the magazine opined, was “the opening of a wireless ‘line’ to the 
business of the world,” making “transatlantic wireless a servant of com- 
merce.” 10 According to the technical press, the actual rate of transmission 
was between three and seven words per minute, because most messages 


• 147 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


had to be repeated, some at least six times. Eastbound messages were, at 
best, “occasional,” and the service was “a case of magnificent promises 
and poor results.” 11 This atmosphere of criticism, and demands for better 
performance, exerted pressure on wireless inventors to develop apparat- 
us that would make more efficient use of the spectrum. 

The lack of clients also put pressure on the inventors. Wireless was 
not being used as much as the inventors and the press had hoped: it was 
still considered a luxury, not a necessity. In 1906, the Marconi Company’s 
gross earnings were $55,170. Electrical World calculated that this figure 
represented 25,823 messages per year, 70 messages per day, or 1 message 
per day per ship. The editors found this less than encouraging: “It is 
difficult to figure out much net revenue after the salaries of officers and 
operators have been paid.” 12 The Americans, however, could not even 
count on these paltry revenues. The one clear market for wireless tele- 
graphy was signaling over water, a market the Americans had not yet 
cultivated very successfully. 

The economic climate was made even less hospitable to wireless 
inventors during this period by the panic of 1907. After what the editor 
of Manufacturer’s Record had labeled “the most prosperous period in our 
history,” when, according to the Review of Reviews, “everything seemed 
so safe and sound,” America’s economic boom came to an abrupt halt. 13 
Referred to variously as the Rich Man’s Panic, the Wall Street Panic, and 
even Roosevelt’s Panic, the crisis that began in the New York financial 
community in October quickly spread to other American cities. Although 
the panic of 1907 was short-lived, it prompted suicides, paralyzed indus- 
try, created unemployment, and caused major banks and corporations to 
revamp their operations. All the leading magazines and newspapers ran 
lead stories on the panic, which was the primary topic of public discus- 
sion. 14 Overextended credit and scarcity of capital, reckless corporate 
speculation, and highly publicized government investigations into the 
business practices of the trolley, railroad, oil, and insurance industries all 
contributed to the crisis. Revelations of corporate mismanagement and 
corruption dampened the previously robust investment spirit, and vari- 
ous firms began having difficulties marketing their stocks and bonds. 
Public confidence wavered, and there were intermittent reports of runs 
on banks. 15 

The Mercantile National Bank of New York was forced to close its 
doors on Thursday, October 17, after depositors began withdrawing 
their funds. There was a run on the Knickerbocker Trust Company, also 
of New York; within three hours, eight million dollars were withdrawn. 
The company suspended further payments and was then declared insol- 


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Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


vent. 16 “Within twenty-four hours,” reported one observer, “almost 
every trust company in the city was under suspicion.” 17 Runs on other 
banks occurred, first in New York and then in other major cities such as 
Pittsburgh and Chicago. As people hoarded their money, the currency 
shortage intensified, producing a “money famine.” 18 

Once again assuming a leadership position, J. P. Morgan, in coopera- 
tion with other bankers, financiers, and the secretary of the treasury, 
coordinated the pooling of resources and the importation of European 
gold to shore up the financial community and forestall further damage. 
By February of 1908, the press could report that the panic was over, 
although the business depression it had triggered persisted. 19 While some 
members of the business community publicly blamed Roosevelt’s trust- 
busting policies for the panic, most press accounts acknowledged that the 
irresponsible “gambling” and “rascality” among speculators had precipi- 
tated the fall. Everybody’s published an article titled “Game Got Them; 
How the Great Wall Street Gambling Syndicate Fell into Its Own Trap.” 
The panic directed considerable attention to the need for reforms in 
banking and in Wall Street practices, and illustrated how risky playing 
the stock market could be, even for those who allegedly knew the rules 
well. Magazine editorials cautioned readers not to buy on margin, and to 
buy only those stocks that were proven and reliable. 

Wireless stocks were anything but reliable. Five months before the 
panic, Success Magazine had published an expose on wireless stock, 
which emphasized the activities of De Forest’s company. Advising read- 
ers that wireless was a bad investment, the magazine reported that 
“millions of dollars of wireless stock manufactured in the past eight years 
is to-day worth no more than the paper on which it is printed.” “The 
most shameful chapter in the record of the prostitution of this great 
invention,” the magazine contended, “deals with the network of the De 
Forest Companies promoted by Abraham White, a modern Colonel Sell- 
ers.” 20 White’s and De Forest’s brand of promotion had undercut the 
credibility of all wireless firms; the panic seemed to cement the negative 
assessment in place. World’s Work, in its December 1907 issue, reported 
that the very word wireless brought “a smile to the lips of Wall Street 
men.” The magazine added: 

Wireless stocks, at large, are to be regarded by the public as little better 
than racetrack gambling. Most of these wireless telegraph stocks have 
been put through a long period of juggling, washing, manipulation, 
fraud and malfeasance that should effectively remove them, for good 
and all, from the field of investment. . . . Widows and orphans, poor 
men and parsons, all looked alike to the wireless fishermen who 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


spread their nets for the American public. Thousands of men and wom- 
en in this country have already learned to curse the day Marconi made 
his first experiment. 21 

The 1907 panic, then, which prompted retrenchment and caution in the 
business community, and increased skepticism among investors in gener- 
al, severely compromised the operations and experimentation of the 
wireless companies. 

It was in these circumstances that Fessenden, De Forest, and Stone, 
as well as Marconi, sought to survive as wireless entrepreneurs. Each 
man faced conflicting technical and managerial requirements. On the one 
hand, wireless transmitters and receivers had to be refined so that waves 
were more defined, and the signaling more reliable. This work would 
require taking technical and financial risks. On the other hand, in the face 
of the economic recession and meager revenues, inventors were well 
advised to be cautious and conserve their resources. There were ten- 
sions, too, between individual creativity, which expanded technical and 
entrepreneurial possibilities, and the distinctive demands and oppor- 
tunities of the American marketplace, which often exerted countervail- 
ing constraints. Navigating in these different tides was anything but easy. 


IRONICALLY, IT WAS the man who advocated one-wavedness, John 
Stone Stone, who was the earliest commercial casualty of the shift to 
more defined waves. Although his four-circuit tuning and loose coupling 
had been significant contributions, Stone had not developed distinctive 
or competitive continuous wave transmitters and receivers. Stone’s prin- 
cipal customer, the U.S. Navy, was adopting Telefunken’s quenched 
spark system, which was technically incompatible with loose coupling. 
This shift in 1907-8 coincided with the financial panic, and the Stone 
Company quickly withdrew from the wireless field. Early in 1908 the 
technical staff was disbanded and a petition of bankruptcy filed. Law- 
rence Sherman, a trustee, tried unsuccessfully to interest Telefunken, 
Marconi, and NESCO in the Stone patents. The small scope of the Stone 
Company and its limited backing prevented the company from weather- 
ing these hard times and technical readjustments. Stone had had several 
promising marketing ideas, but none was settled on and implemented. 
For example, he had written in 1904, “The policy of the company which 
seems to me the most likely to be profitable in the future is one similar to 
that which has been so faithfully and successfully followed out by the 
American Bell Telephone Company, namely, that of licensing the man- 


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Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


ufacture of its apparatus and leasing the apparatus to operating com- 
panies.” Stone did not, however, pursue this plan. 22 When business 
picked up in 1905 and 1906, he increased his payroll. Unfortunately, he 
did not hire an enterprising business manager. Nor did the company ever 
determine whether it was a manufacturing firm or a communications 
services firm, and it was unprepared to be both. In 1908, Stone returned 
to his consulting practice. 

One of the Stone Company’s officers reviewed the wireless situation 
and cynically described how he would run a wireless company, had he 
the chance to do it again. What a successful company needed was, “first, 
ample funds — and to command these [was] needed ... a brazen ‘pyro- 
technic’ exploiting of the gullible public. There was too much self respect, 
too much of earnest devotibn to science, to enlist public interest, which 
demands that its hopes be raised to exuberance, before it will part with 
its money — not considering that it is paying for the golden visions held 
before it, in glowing advertisements.” 23 But during this period, even 
glowing advertisements were not enough. Technical refinements pro- 
tected and promoted by the right business strategy — these now were 
paramount. Stone had failed to settle on any particular strategy or to link 
technical developments with marketing goals. The field was thus left to 
Fessenden, De Forest, and Marconi. 

Creative people respond differently to having to compromise their 
goals, to having to share their particular inspirations and visions with 
others less gifted and less personally invested in their dreams. Some 
become passive, resigned, or reclusive. Others become obstinate and 
combative; they fight back. So it was with Fessenden between 1906 and 
1911. Believing that he had already made major compromises to suit his 
backers, compromises that interfered with his experimentation and that 
required him to fill too many roles at once, Fessenden became increas- 
ingly uncompromising and abrasive. He came to see every negotiation 
over every detail as a battle over preserving the autonomy and discretion 
he had left. His backers, who by 1905 had already invested half a million 
dollars in Fessenden’s visions, stoked the embers of their own resent- 
ment, which Fessenden fanned with each new demand. The increased 
tensions within the company, which were exacerbated by external 
events such as the panic, left both sides feeling beleaguered and frus- 
trated. Fessenden, Given, and Walker had never been able to agree on 
and pursue long-term business strategies, and the erosion of their super- 
ficial alliance during these years precluded the discovery of a remedy for 
the situation. They continued to pursue short-term projects that were 
sustained only through the first intoxicating flush of enthusiasm. When 


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. INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


the endurance and determination necessary to sustain a strategy over 
years rather than months was not summoned, one short-term plan re- 
placed another. A productive alliance can provide the sustenance a com- 
pany needs, but such an alliance did not exist at NESCO, and this defi- 
ciency had major repercussions not only on the company, but also on 
how and by whom radio would be developed. 

After Fessenden, his family, and his corps of assistants moved to 
Brant Rock, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1905, all work was devoted 
to establishing a transatlantic service. In the early winter of 1904-5, 
Fessenden had asked officials at the British embassy in Washington to help 
him obtain a license to build and operate a station in England. He no 
doubt hoped, if not expected, that his Canadian background and the fact 
that his wife was from Bermuda would make it easier for him to obtain 
such assistance. Meanwhile, NESCO’s patent attorneys in London began 



Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


discussing the proposition with government officials there. 24 Because 
private wireless telegraphy in Great Britain had come under the supervi- 
sion of the Post Office in 1904, the postmaster general could determine 
whether such a license would be granted and where such a station might 
be located. Although it is not clear what location Fessenden was hoping 
for in England, he was assigned a site on the northwestern coast of 
Scotland in a tiny town called Machrihanish on the Mull of Kintyre. 25 
The location was even more remote and inaccessible than Marconi’s site 
in Poldhu, Cornwall. Although not far from Glasgow as the crow flies, 
Machrihanish was at the end of a long, barely populated peninsula sepa- 
rated from the mainland by the Firth of Clyde. There was no railroad 
service and the roads were rudimentary. H. J. Glaubitz, NESCO’s con- 
struction engineer, sailed for Scotland in the summer of 1905 to supervise 
the station’s construction. Many of NESCO’s men made the final leg of the 
journey in an open, horse-drawn cart. 

Fessenden became increasingly caught up in the excitement and 
challenge of transatlantic work. He suggested to Walker that NESCO 
form a Canadian company; he believed such a company would easily 
obtain a license to operate between England and North America. 26 
Meanwhile, Fessenden supervised the work at Brant Rock. While he 
waited for General Electric to deliver his high-frequency alternator, Fes- 
senden used a rotating spark gap transmitter that was superior to station- 
ary spark gaps and produced a high-pitched musical signal. He designed a 
new type of aerial that was supported by a tower made of steel tubing 
just wide enough for a person to climb up inside. His model was the 
smokestack, an easy-to-build structure that had proven to be durable and 
sturdy. 27 Fessenden insisted on steel because it was fireproof and a steel 
tower cost about four thousand dollars less than a wooden one. 28 The 
towers at Brant Rock and Machrihanish were completed on December 
28, 1905. Neither of Fessenden’s transatlantic stations was as large and 
powerful as Marconi’s, but their construction was nearly as expensive 
and certainly as difficult. 

All of this work was shrouded in great secrecy, as everyone in 
NESCO feared espionage by other companies. 29 Walker warned Fes- 
senden: “De Forest and other obnoxious persons should be prevented 
from seeing what you are doing.” 30 A watchman guarded Brant Rock 
twenty-four hours a day. Helen Fessenden complained about being 
“pestered by the idle and curious, who disregarded notices and signs 
against trespassing with the traditional aplomb of the tourist.” She add- 
ed: “More than once Fessenden staged a realistic tempest in a teapot to 
teach the public proper respect for our regulations.” 31 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


In December of 1905, Fessenden notified Walker about a letter he 
had just received from the navy. The navy’s wireless operator in San Juan 
reported hearing messages from an unknown station. A transcript of the 
messages was sent to Fessenden to ascertain whether he knew anything 
about them. They had originated at Brant Rock, approximately sixteen 
hundred miles from Puerto Rico. 32 By January 1906, NESCO’s trans- 
atlantic stations were exchanging messages. Service was sporadic, how- 
ever, and in the summer, static interfered almost constantly. Fessenden 
wrote to a friend, “Sometimes the signals are very loud, so that we can 
hear Machrihanish with the telephones six inches away from the ear, but 
two or three times in every month we can hardly hear them at all, which 
of course is not commercial.” Fessenden’s approach to the static problem 
was similar to Marconi’s: in May and June he remodeled the transatlantic 
stations, increasing the strength of the station ninety times. 33 But the 
increase in power did not help, and Fessenden was forced to suspend 
operation. 34 Communication resumed in the autumn of 1906. 

Although Fessenden had been successfully transmitting messages 
across the Atlantic intermittently for months, he did not announce the 
achievement to the press. Fessenden wrote: “We do not intend to have 
anything become public until we are ready to work commercially both 
during night time as well as day time.” 35 While he was striving for 
perfection, Fessenden experienced the same disaster that had previously 
befallen Marconi. On December 6, 1906, a storm destroyed the aerial at 
Machrihanish. Fessenden blamed the construction company, charging 
that its workers had installed defective guy wires. 36 This may have been 
true, but it was also true that a transatlantic station was a new venture 
for NESCO, and Fessenden had not had any previous experience with 
massive, vulnerable, long-distance aerials that had to survive often se- 
vere coastal storms. Because Marconi was more single-minded and sys- 
tems oriented about wireless, he immediately improved and rebuilt any 
long-distance aerials that blew down. But the Machrihanish mishap 
caused NESCO to abandon its transatlantic work for several years. Much 
of the money invested in this venture was lost. Again, the company 
changed its business strategy, this time from establishing a transatlantic 
service to marketing wireless telephony. 

At the same time he had been developing the transatlantic stations, 
Fessenden had been working on transmitting the human voice without 
wires. To achieve reliable wireless telephony, inventors had to redesign 
significantly both transmission and reception. This Fessenden had already 
begun to do. His work on the high-frequency alternator was driven by 
the insight that only continuous sustained waves could carry the undula- 


• 154 • 



Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


tions of the human voice. As Charles Steinmetz and other G.E. officials 
had observed in 1900, Fessenden’s vision was beyond the technical ca- 
pabilities of the electric power industry at that time. Fessenden’s insis- 
tence that high frequencies were attainable was contagious, however, 
and G.E.’s research department gradually internalized and institu- 
tionalized Fessenden’s goal. After Steinmetz designed a 10,000-cycle 
alternator, which Fessenden found adequate but not rapid enough, the 
fulfillment of Fessenden’s order was assigned to a newly arrived Swedish 
engineer, Ernst F. W. Alexanderson. Years later, Alexanderson recalled 
how he obtained the assignment: “The alternator was one of the in- 
ventions that I had to make in order to hold my job! The request came in 
from Fessenden for a high frequency alternator. That was passed along to 
the regular designers. They thought it was a rather fantastic thing, and I 
was crazy enough to undertake it.” Alexanderson designed the 100,000- 
cycle alternator, but he reported regretfully to Fessenden in the summer 
of 1906 that it could not be operated at more than 50,000 cycles. 37 One 
major limitation Alexanderson confronted was the enormous heat gen- 
erated by the mechanical speed of the alternator, which caused parts of 
the machine to bum out. Also, Fessenden’s own stubbornness compro- 
mised performance. Alexanderson originally designed an alternator 
with a stationary laminated iron armature between two rotating discs. 
Fessenden insisted that the armature be made of wood, because he be- 
lieved that iron could not be used at high frequencies. Some of this 
prejudice stemmed from the fact that Steinmetz had used an iron arma- 
ture in his 10,000-cycle alternator. Alexanderson disagreed with Fes- 
senden but followed the inventor’s specifications. At the same time, 
Alexanderson designed his own alternator with the iron armature. 38 

In the fall of 1906 the 100,000-cycle alternator was delivered to 
Fessenden at Brant Rock. Fessenden and his assistants had to repair the 
machine, which had been damaged during shipping, but by October, 
Fessenden reported successful voice transmission. 39 Fessenden soon dis- 
covered that the constantly damp atmosphere at Brant Rock did not help 
the performance of the wood armatures, and by 1907 he conceded that 
Alexanderson’s design was superior. Because of Alexanderson’s con- 
tinued improvements on the alternator through World War I, the dynamo 
came to be named after him, but as Alexanderson himself stated, “How 
much of it was Fessenden’s idea and how much was my idea is very 
difficult to disentangle. It was a productive partnership. . . . The patent 
on the specific way of doing this is in my name because that was my idea, 
but of course in the general idea — setting the aim of where we wanted to 
go — Fessenden was naturally the leader.” 40 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


The alternator, in 1906, still had major handicaps: it was big, cum- 
bersome, and expensive; Fessenden was paying approximately five 
thousand dollars for each one. A reliable method of modulating the 
alternator did not yet exist. The carbon microphones in use at the time 
could not handle the energy generated by the alternator, and conse- 
quently they burned out quickly. Yet the alternator was a critical break- 
through in radio technology and elegant evidence of Fessenden’s genius 
in synthesizing his previous work in the electric power industry with his 
present need for a transmitter. The alternator was developed because 
Fessenden badgered, nagged, insisted. He gave the men at G.E. little rest 
and his backers little relief from the expenses surrounding the develop- 
ment of the alternator until the machine was delivered and operating. 
These traits earned him enmity and resentment. They also produced a 
revolutionary new transmitter that, during World War I, became the 
centerpiece of America’s radio network, the invention capable of sending 
messages directly to Europe. The alternator was considered so valuable 
in 1919 that naval officials, intent on keeping the invention out of Mar- 
coni’s hands, helped orchestrate the formation of the Radio Corporation 
of America to control the invention. 

By October of 1906, using the alternator, Fessenden had transmitted 
speech over a distance of ten miles. He established an experimental 
station in Plymouth, Massachusetts, twelve miles south of Brant Rock. 41 
Fessenden wrote to recording companies asking for a good phonograph 
and several records, especially recordings of Sousa, Caruso, and violin 
solos. He explained to one supplier: “What 1 want is something that will 
test the talking qualities of the telephone so as to compare it with the 
regular wire line telephone.” 42 

On Christmas Eve of 1906, Fessenden used the alternator and a 
microphone to transmit a special holiday broadcast from Brant Rock. 
Three days earlier, he had notified ships equipped with Fessenden appa- 
ratus to listen for this broadcast. There is no record of Fessenden notifying 
the press, and the demonstration received no newspaper or magazine 
coverage. The program included music from phonograph records, Fes- 
senden playing the violin, Fessenden singing, and Fessenden making a 
speech. He broadcast a similar program on New Year’s Eve, and many 
surprised shipboard operators wrote to the inventor reporting that they 
had received the unprecedented transmission. Although the talking and 
singing were not very loud, and the voice reception was intermittent, 
Fessenden had successfully demonstrated what would soon be called 
radio. The Christmas Eve program is still considered the first radio broad- 
cast in American history, and a truly dramatic demonstration of the alter- 
nator’s capabilities. 43 


• 156 • 



Inventors as Entrepreneurs 



Fessenden’s original 100,000-cycle alternator, 1906. 


It is important to note that Fessenden was not proposing that the 
wireless telephone be used for broadcasting; he was still trying to im- 
prove point-to-point communication. He wrote to a colleague: “The 
chief use ... of the wireless telephone would be to take the place of the 
present long-distance pole lines . . . which are very expensive.” In his 
1908 address to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, he stated 
that he believed “the use of wireless telephony would be seriously cur- 
tailed unless it could be operated in conjunction with wire lines.” 44 
Wireless telephony was still experimental, but the advantage it offered 
was evident: wirelessly transmitted speech was often more distinct and 
less distorted than speech carried over the wire lines. 

Clearly with Bell Telephone in mind, Fessenden wrote to a naval 
official: “We have decided ... to keep our inventions to ourselves until 
we can sell them to some company powerful enough to make the politi- 
cians at the heads of the Departments walk straight.” 45 The time to sell 
seemed imminent. NESCO had been eyeing AT&T since 1904, and with 
the loss of the Machrihanish station and the expense of the alternator, 
Given and Walker were quite eager for an infusion of capital. As Walker 
wrote in 1905, “Our customer should be a telephone company. ... As 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 



Fessenden’s assistants at Brant Rock testing his wireless telephone, 1907. 


soon as [the wireless telephone] is perfected, we should exhibit it pri- 
vately to one of the telephone companies or other strong phonical people 
and endeavor to sell it to them.” 46 Fessenden, too, believed that once 
corporate officials saw firsthand the work at Brant Rock, they would 
want to acquire NESCO. He invited representatives from the English, 
French, and German embassies, Scientific American, the Associated 
Press, Western Electric, and Bell Telephone to a demonstration of wire- 
less telephony between Brant Rock and Plymouth in December of 
1906. 47 Fessenden stationed some of the representatives at Brant Rock 
and some at Plymouth, and encouraged them to radio-telephone each 
other to test the quality and efficiency of his appartus. The tests were 
successful, although the voices were faint and chopped up. Nonetheless, 
AT&T’s chief engineer, Hammond V. Hayes, the man who had encour- 
aged Stone’s early work on wireless, was sufficiently impressed to ad- 
vise president of AT&T Frederick P. Fish: “I feel that there is such a 
reasonable probability of wireless telegraphy and telephony being of 
commercial value to our company that I would advise taking steps to 
associate ourselves with Mr. Fessenden if some satisfactory arrangement 


• 158 ■ 



Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


can be made.” 48 Before any such arrangement could be made, the panic 
of 1907 and organizational changes within AT&T intervened. 

Although AT&T had enjoyed unprecedented growth between 1902 
and 1907, expansion had been expensive, increasing the company’s debt 
from $60 million to more than $200 million. The need for further expan- 
sion, which could not be financed through earnings, prompted the 
Boston-based executive committee to sell large blocks of stock to a group 
of backers who, it turned out, were fronting for J. P. Morgan. Morgan 
intended to consolidate the telegraph and telephone systems in American 
much as he had consolidated the steel industry. By April of 1907, the 
Morgan interests were in control. They appointed Theodore N. Vail 
president. 49 Vail had first joined Bell Telephone in 1878 and had resigned 
as chief operating officer in 1887 because he considered the Bostonian 
administration too cautious and unimaginative. Both Vail and Morgan 
were determined to reduce the company’s debt, consolidate and stream- 
line its operations, and concentrate on establishing the corporate 
hegemony of the Bell system. This meant devoting attention exclusively 
to refining and extending long-distance service, which in 1907 was still 
plagued with problems. It meant retrenchment. It did not mean investing 
in potentially promising but peripherally related inventions. 

In 1907, Vail fired twelve thousand Bell employees. He also consoli- 
dated all of the company’s research and development, which had been 
conducted in three separate locations, into one laboratory in New York 
City. Hammond Hayes, the chief engineer who had been so enthusiastic 
about Fessenden’s work, was replaced by John J. Carty, who headed the 
new lab. Carty was a dedicated technical-systems builder and would 
pursue only those inventions which fit into and advanced the existing 
wired network. He and Vail defined the lab’s task as standardizing Bell 
equipment and advancing long-distance work. As one historian has 
noted, “To Vail, the system came first, and all of his actions followed from 
the desire to build, integrate, and protect that system wherever and 
however possible.” 50 Such a man would not be interested in an in- 
vention that did not promise to extend or to strengthen the network that 
was already in place. 

After reviewing Hayes’s recommendation that AT&T make an ar- 
rangement with Fessenden, Vail asked the company’s chief patent at- 
torney, Thomas D. Lockwood, to assess the potential advantages and 
disadvantages of following Hayes’s advice. In a twenty-six-page report, 
Lockwood advised Vail that wireless competition was too great and 
commercial outlets too unpromising for the company to invest in wire- 
less telephony. He also noted that by the time wireless telephony might 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


be technically advanced enough to serve as an adjunct to or substitute for 
the telephone, Fessenden’s basic patents would have expired. 51 AT&T 
informed NESCO that it had decided against investing in Fessenden’s 
wireless telephone. 

The panic arrived just after Fessenden had demonstrated the revolu- 
tionary potential of the alternator, just as he was transmitting the human 
voice without wires, just when he had AT&T interested in doing busi- 
ness. It was a severe blow and laid bare the tensions just beneath the 
surface in NESCO. Marketing wireless telephony to AT&T apparently 
was a strategy Fessenden and his backers had agreed on, and, given 
AT&T’s resources and its determination to absorb or thwart all competi- 
tion, the strategy was not completely unrealistic. But it rested on the 
favorable decision of one customer, and when that customer said no, the 
strategy became defunct. Fessenden, Given, and Walker began to bicker 
more sharply. Fessenden criticized what he believed was a distinct lack 
of entrepreneurial flair on the part of his backers: “The only danger 
which I see ahead of our company, and I consider it a great one, is that we 
are rapidly drifting into the position of being the owners of a perfectly 
operating commercial system, but shut off from any place to work it, 
through having allowed our rivals to obtain a monopoly of the operating 
licenses all over the world.” 52 Given replied testily, “The most serious 
danger which I see ahead of our company is that our performances do not 
keep pace with our claims. I do not think Marconi or De Forest will stand 
in the way of our obtaining permits to work anywhere, if we can do the 
thing and they cannot.” 53 

In the summer and fall of 1907, NESCO curtailed its experimental 
work and laid off employees. Advising Fessenden that the times were 
somewhat strenuous, Walker informed the inventor that because of fi- 
nancial conditions, the company would “allow wireless to lay low for 
fairer weather and then discuss any further moves.” 54 Strategic planning 
was on hold. NESCO now had no commercial stations and only three 
experimental ones. 55 Brant Rock was still one of the most sophisticated 
and powerful stations in America; naval operators stationed in Cuba 
wrote to Fessenden that he came in so strong they did not have to tune for 
him. 56 Despite promising results, NESCO continued through 1907 and 
early 1908 without revenue, and little technical or financial progress was 
made. Except for the 1906 demonstrations of wireless telephony, 
NESCO stayed out of the public eye. 

By the spring of 1908 the intensity of the panic had abated, and 
Fessenden began pushing for policy changes within NESCO. Events com- 
pletely out of the company’s control — the storm in Scotland, the stock 


■ 160 ■ 



Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


market crash, AT&T’s reorganization — had frustrated Given and Walk- 
er’s goal of selling the entire company. Fessenden, who since the com- 
pany’s inception had wanted to develop a manufacturing firm that sold 
apparatus, began urging his backers to adopt this strategy. While not 
abandoning their long-term goal, Given and Walker did agree to limited 
sales to bring in some revenue. Fessenden’s motivations were both per- 
sonal and financial. As an inventor, he wanted his products out in the 
marketplace, on display and in use. Also, his 1902 contract with Given 
and Walker made their payment of $330,000 for a 55 percent interest in 
Fessenden’s patents contingent on the company’s first earnings. Since 
there had as yet been no earnings, Fessenden had received a monthly 
salary but no money for the nearly two hundred patents he had filed over 
the preceding ten years. He had become extremely impatient with this 
arrangement, and was eager to supplement his two-thousand-dollar an- 
nual salary. 

Fessenden also pushed the company to hire a skilled salesman, a 
move he had advocated since 1904. By 1908, he knew he had exactly the 
right man for the job: Colonel John Firth. Walker and Given agreed to 
hire him. Gregarious, smooth-talking, and capable of sustaining that ener- 
getic yet easygoing persona so necessary for sales, Firth was everything 
Fessenden was not. He had been a sales representative for De Forest and 
in 1906 had formed his own company, Wireless Specialty Apparatus, to 
sell individual components such as condensers or receivers, primarily to 
the U.S. Navy. Fessenden’s sales approach was to emphasize the superi- 
ority of the apparatus and expect outstanding performance to sell equip- 
ment; Firth’s style was to cultivate friendships with key people and 
interweave chumminess and business. He played poker with potential 
clients, brought them cigars, slapped them on the back, and told jokes — 
and he sold a great deal of wireless equipment. 57 His relationships with 
the men in the Bureau of Equipment were excellent. He was a close 
personal friend of Mack Musgrave’s, who was in charge of communica- 
tions for United Fruit. Firth joined NESCO in June 1908 and dealt di- 
rectly with Fessenden. By the end of the summer he had won orders from 
the navy and United Fruit totaling $152, 000. 58 Selling to United Fruit 
was not difficult: its operators at the Caribbean stations regularly heard 
the high-pitched tone of Brant Rock, and the company was eager to 
acquire similar transmitters. His major coup was convincing the navy 
that with the latest NESCO equipment, especially Fessenden’s rotary 
spark gap, it would be able to establish a high-power long-distance 
station capable of signaling to Europe and the Caribbean. He persuaded 
naval officials to experiment with the equipment at Brant Rock and 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


talked them into paying rent while working there. 59 Thus, under the 
guidance of Firth, NESCO resumed doing business with the navy and 
was especially successful at selling transmitters. 

Firth also had to assume the role of negotiator between Fessenden 
and Walker and Given. Fessenden considered the $152,000 “first earn- 
ings” and wanted to get paid for his patent rights. Walker refused, report- 
edly saying, “If you don’t behave, don’t do what we say you won’t get 
anything. Mr. Given and I have the company tied up so that if you make 
any fuss you won’t get a cent.” 60 On September 11, 1908, Fessenden 
submitted his resignation, reminded Walker that, not having received 
payment, Fessenden was in possession of the patent rights, and made 
several suggestions on how they might compromise. On September 12, 
Firth mediated between the inventor and his backers and helped them 
draw up a new contract. Only a few minor changes were made in the 
existing agreement. The $330,000 due Fessenden was still to be paid out 
of the first profits, and Fessenden’s salary was raised to $600 a month. 
Given and Walker agreed to advance “from time to time if it should be 
needed” up to $50,000 to construct stations under contract and provide 
the running expenses for the company. All future business decisions were 
to be voted on, and major differences were to be referred to an ar- 
bitrator. 61 Although Fessenden was not yet to be paid for his patents, the 
agreement set up a schedule of what constituted first earnings and made 
payment seem more imminent. The breach between Fessenden and his 
backers was temporarily bridged, and Firth was clearly responsible. He 
was bringing in the contracts that promised to make NESCO viable, 
possibly even profitable, and he made both parties recognize the impor- 
tance of staying together. 

Despite Firth’s success at selling apparatus — the first strategy to 
succeed for NESCO — Given and Walker clung to their dreams of trans- 
atlantic service and the offer they hoped it would bring. Walker urged 
Fessenden again to “try to interest someone in the project” and to “get up 
a Trans-Atlantic Company at once.” 62 He must not have found Fes- 
senden’s first attempt at this terribly reassuring. Fessenden notified Walk- 
er in late September of 1908 that an agent representing W.E.D. Stokes 
had offered to buy out Given and Walker and form a new company with 
Fessenden as its president. 63 Stokes, who had inherited eleven million 
dollars from his father in the 1890s, was a self-styled financier and owner 
of the recently built Ansonia Hotel in New York City. He controlled the 
Chesapeake Western Railroad Company, bred racehorses in Kentucky, 
wrote a book about eugenics titled The Right to be Well Born, and had a 
son who was interested in wireless. 64 Fessenden had periodically nee- 


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Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


died Given and Walker by reporting such offers to them and was ob- 
viously trying to remind them, in an unabashedly transparent way, that 
others with money and connections considered him and his work valu- 
able. But he carefully added that he “would not be willing to go in with 
the other people without [Walker] and Mr. Given were in also.” What 
Fessenden suggested instead was that Stokes arrange for the merger 
godfather of them all, J. P. Morgan, “to take charge of the entire affair and 
get up some plan for putting the whole business in shape.” 65 No record 
exists of Walker’s reaction to this, but the scheme was not pursued, or 
even mentioned, again. 

Instead, while Fessenden worked on the transatlantic service Walk- 
er wanted to establish between the United States and Great Britain, he 
also renewed his earlier plan of establishing a Canadian transatlantic 
company. He corresponded with Brenton A. MacNab, editor of the 
Montreal Star, who advised him to form a separate company with local 
incorporators. MacNab’s belief was that a British company would have a 
better chance of obtaining a license from the British Post Office than 
would an American company. MacNab also informed Fessenden that the 
Marconi Company was considered monopolistic in Canada and, conse- 
quently, that routing Marconi would not be difficult. Encouraged by 
MacNab, Fessenden planned to build a new station in Newfoundland 
which could communicate with Machrihanish. He took MacNab’s advice 
and formed the Fessenden Wireless Company, based in Canada. The 
Americans Walker and Given, were excluded from the directorship yet 
they were still expected to advance funds to the new company. 66 

Fessenden now planned a trip to England, where he hoped to secure 
a long-term license for operating his transatlantic stations. Prior to leav- 
ing, in February of 1910, Fessenden offered the planned but not yet 
operating system to T. N. Vail, president of AT&T. Fessenden boasted that 
his stations would operate at a speed of 250 words per minute and 
would achieve a distance of 3,000 miles. “Two such stations, one in 
Europe and one in America, working duplex, are capable of handling 
more traffic than is at present handled by all the Atlantic cables com- 
bined,” he said. Then he asserted: “The question of interference has been 
solved. ... A method has been devised for eliminating interference so 
completely that many thousands of subscribers’ stations may be located 
within a mile of each other and yet work independently.” He further 
claimed that his wireless telephone now operated over a distance of 425 
miles. Fessenden advised Vail to act quickly in acquiring NESCO, because 
after the end of the year, NESCO’s rights would probably not be for sale. 
If AT&T failed to buy NESCO, then Fessenden would have no choice but 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


to compete with AT&T in the future. 67 Vail must have found the naive 
effrontery of this letter both preposterous and amusing. Six months ear- 
lier, J. J. Carty had reported: “I have personally talked by the Fessenden 
wireless method from Brant Rock ... to Plymouth. . . . The talk was 
very faint indeed.” Vail himself wrote to a colleague, “As to the ‘wire- 
less’: I can only refer you to the success of the wireless telegraph and the 
[negligible] inroad made by it upon the general telegraphic situation as 
compared with the promises and prophecies.” 68 

Fessenden and his wife sailed for England on March 12, 1910. All 
expenses were paid by NESCO. Helen Fessenden recalled, “On reaching 
London a suite was engaged at Claridge’s, Brook Street, that hostelry of 
Royalty, and here Reg remained for the entire seven months of his English 
visit. This was in line with his standard way of attacking any problem — 
to be satisfied with nothing less than the best.” 69 The Fessendens clearly 
enjoyed their regal lifestyle, believing they were finally mixing with 
people of their own caliber and receiving the treatment they deserved. 
The trip did not have a salubrious effect on Fessenden’s vanity or sense of 
entitlement. While in England, he corresponded primarily with his secre- 
tary at Brant Rock, Miss Bent, who kept him informed about both busi- 
ness and technical developments. It was she who advised him of changes 
in machinery and warned him that “many of the new designs [were] not 
good electrically.” 70 

After a series of high-level and complicated negotiations, Fessenden 
succeeded in securing a twenty-year license for transatlantic work. He 
returned to the United States on November 10, 1910, and met his wife, 
who had returned earlier, and Walker for dinner. Relations between the 
business partners seemed amicable. They were not. Apparently, in Fes- 
senden’s absence, the men at Brant Rock felt free to complain about 
working with him. Ernst Alexanderson, who got along very well with 
Fessenden, nevertheless remembered him as “so domineering that peo- 
ple who worked with him said every week or so he fired them all when 
they didn’t do what he expected them to do, and then he rehired them 
the next day.” 71 George Clark, who had been testing NESCO apparatus 
for the navy in the summer and fall of 1910, wrote a colleague just after 
Fessenden’s return, “I went to Brant Rock yesterday. I fear that things 
will be very nasty in the future. Even Mr. Kelman said Fessenden was 
intolerable. Hill expects to throw up the job next week. Fessenden is 
worse than ever.” 72 An unsigned letter to Walker from Brant Rock re- 
ferred to Fessenden’s “erratic methods” and his “tyrannical treatment of 
the men.” “Dissatisfaction with the actions of Professor Fessenden,” the 
letter continued, “was general throughout the entire force and this dis- 


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Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


satisfaction was voiced loudly by the men.” John Kelman, an engineer 
who served as general superintendent during Fessenden’s absence, was 
described as having brought order out of chaos. 73 

The staff at Brant Rock, Given, and Walker realized how much they 
had enjoyed Fessenden’s absence. This drove home the extent to which 
the tensions between Fessenden and his backers and Fessenden and his 
staff had burdened and preoccupied the company. Walker and Given 
became convinced that NESCO could operate more smoothly and prof- 
itably if Fessenden’s managerial role was circumscribed. On December 
10, Walker proposed reorganizing the company and appointing a busi- 
ness manager who would be headquartered in Pittsburgh. Fessenden 
would be relieved of the title general manager and become, instead, 
scientific engineer of the company, so that he could devote all his time to 
“the more rapid development of [the company’s] inventions.” Walker 
added: “Under [this] arrangement, of course, you will be consulted fully 
upon all business matters, the details of which you have so often com- 
plained [were] preventing you from devoting your time to the scientific 
work of the company.” 74 The company’s Pittsburgh-based patent at- 
torney, Francis Clay, reiterated this argument, but was more flattering: 
“The company has a beautiful opportunity to enter into very lucrative 
business and the situation is very excellent if the company could proceed 
in its business with your direction in scientific matters. I have long felt 
that you were wasting very high-priced time and attention on very low- 
priced work. ... I think that there is but one Professor Fessenden and 
there are many business managers.” 75 No record exists of Fessenden’s 
response to this proposal, but given his dissatisfaction with his backers’ 
business strategies in the past, and his conviction that only through his 
technical, marketing, and diplomatic efforts was the company surviving 
at all, he must have vehemently opposed such a change. 

On December 28, 1910, Fessenden went to Pittsburgh at Given and 
Walker’s request. While Fessenden attended the conference in Pitts- 
burgh, John Kelman presented a written order to Miss Bent, signed by 
Walker, which notifed her that the Brant Rock office was to be shut down 
and all papers and documents packed up and shipped to Pittsburgh. 76 
Bent immediately showed the order to Helen Fessenden, who told Kel- 
man the order could not be carried out until Fessenden had been con- 
sulted. She tried all day to reach her husband by telephone at the Farm- 
er’s National Bank in Pittsburgh, but was repeatedly told that Fessenden 
was not there. By mid-afternoon Kelman returned with two men who 
had been hired to help him remove the office files; they intended to begin 
immediately, with or without Fessenden’s knowledge. Helen Fessenden 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


threw her arms around the largest set of files, but her grip was, in her 
words, “forcibly loosened.” After about one-third of the files had been 
removed, all three men inadvertently stepped out of the office simul- 
taneously; Helen Fessenden slammed and locked the door and bar- 
ricaded herself in. Fessenden called in at 6:00 and, on hearing the news, 
advised his wife to call a lawyer immediately and do whatever she could 
to prevent the removal of Fessenden’s papers. A lawyer in Boston in- 
structed her to get the county sheriff to have the files attached, which she 
was able to do. Meanwhile, Fessenden received notice of an injunction 
filed by Given and Walker enjoining him from further participation in the 
affairs of the company. These papers were dated November 1910. Fes- 
senden was officially discharged on January 8, 1911; he immediately 
sued for breach of contract. 

The immediate cause for the break was a dispute over patents; 
Given and Walker wanted certain patents signed over to the company, 
and Fessenden refused. They then informed him that they considered that 
the company owned not only his wireless patents, but any other of his 
patents as well. Fessenden violently disagreed. 77 The split had been 
coming for years. As experimentation continued and expenses mounted, 
each side cultivated a proprietary attitude toward the company. As each 
side compromised over money, time, or corporate strategy, it became 
more resentful of the other side. Each came to view the other as less 
valuable, as replaceable. The three men had shared the common hope 
that wireless would bring them considerable money and prestige, but 
they had never truly shared a vision of how to make that happen. With- 
out a common long-term strategy that they all wholeheartedly endorsed 
and pursued exclusively, they could not survive in a corporate setting 
increasingly dominated by determined strategists. Nor were their for- 
tunes helped by Given and Walker’s lack of expertise and flair in market- 
ing electrical technology, or Fessenden’s lack of humor and diplomacy. 
These men were not organization builders. As a result, they could not 
subordinate their differences for the good of the company, compete with 
Marconi, or get a foothold in corporate America. In May of 1912, a jury 
found in Fessenden’s favor and awarded him just over four hundred 
thousand dollars. To conserve resources during the appeal process, 
NESCO went into receivership. The case was eventually settled, years 
later, out of court. 78 

The collapse of NESCO was certainly due to inadequate strategic 
planning and insufficient coordination within the firm. The failure of 
NESCO demonstrated how a poorly defined organizational structure 
could exacerbate business problems brought on by personality conflicts. 


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Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


Here were strong personalities, all eager for success, yet in disagreement 
about how success might be achieved. The duties of the three men, 
particularly in the areas of marketing and promotion, overlapped too 
frequently; at the same time, Fessenden enjoyed too much autonomy 
over technical developments, on which the entire enterprise relied. It 
was never clear who was in charge, the men with the money or the man 
with the inventions. 

Most importantly, the three tried to run the firm simultaneously as an 
equal partnership and a hierarchy, without resolving the contradictions 
between these two approaches. When Given and Walker sought, uni- 
laterally, to restructure the lines of responsibility in 1910, after seven 
years of operation, the result was dissolution. That is how fragile the 
organizational structure was, and its indeterminate nature ensured that 
as duties overlapped, as investment of time and money increased, and as 
the stakes got higher, personalities would clash more frequently. These 
organizational problems meant that Fessenden’s influence on the 
emergence of radio would be primarily intellectual and technological. 
This influence was, however, anything but slight, for Fessenden’s dedica- 
tion to continuous wave technology changed the course of radio history. 


LEE DE FOREST’S ideas about wireless during these years were equally 
significant. In 1905, De Forest was living out a classic version of the 
American dream: through technical mastery, he was becoming rich and 
famous. While in St. Louis for the World’s Fair, De Forest lived in a three- 
story brick house complete with a carriage and a coachman, cook, and 
butler. He did not immediately find love, however. In November of 1905 
he married a woman named Lucile Sheardown, whom he referred to 
less than one year later as another man’s mistress and a harlot. Appar- 
ently Sheardown had other allegiances; she refused to consummate the 
marriage, and she and De Forest parted within five months. 79 

De Forest’s backer, Abraham White, issued more and more press 
releases, and they were more and more audacious. They apparently 
were also convincing. The frequency and seeming legitimacy of the 
claims made De Forest appear to be the most technically advanced and 
successful American inventor, and stock continued to sell. White pre- 
dicted that someday every automobile would be equipped with wireless 
and began planning a transatlantic venture for the firm. In pursuit of this 
goal, the company late in 1905 financed a trip to Europe for De Forest so 
he could secure a license and begin work on a transatlantic station. He 
also hoped to sell some stock. When Marconi first learned of this plan, he 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


wrote to Cuthbert Hall, “I think it would be a good thing to let the Press 
know (even through advertisement) if his prospectus appears, that we 
intend taking legal action for infringement if he sticks up any station in 
England.” 80 Marconi also intended to thwart De Forest’s efforts to get a 
license. In the midst of the transatlantic experimentation, which he pri- 
vately admitted was a complete failure, De Forest was summoned back 
to America because of patent problems. 

On arriving in New York in April 1906, De Forest learned that a 
warrant was out for his arrest, and the De Forest attorney advised the 
inventor to flee to Canada for a few months until White could raise the 
five-thousand-dollar bond. De Forest and White had been cited for con- 
tempt for continuing to market the electrolytic detector. The presiding 
judge also decided that De Forest and White should pay damages for 
using Fessenden’s detector as their own during the Russo-Japanese War 
and the St. Louis exhibition. After extricating himself and De Forest from 
threatened incarceration, White demanded De Forest’s resignation. 
White was furious over the patent suits and accused De Forest of mislead- 
ing him about the rights to the receiver. He warned De Forest that failure 
to resign would result in White’s rescission of the inventor’s bond. When 
he left the company in the summer of 1906, De Forest had only five 
hundred dollars. 81 He complained of White in his diary: “He has made of 
me these years an office boy, a traveler about the country to meet people, 
to talk glowing prospects, to build and operate impossible stations, so 
that his stock agents might reap large commissions, while he stole the 
residue.” 82 Demoralized and broke, De Forest asked Hay Walker, of all 
people, for a job. It is not difficult to imagine the responses of Walker and 
Fessenden to this proposition. 

The late fall and early winter of 1906 were very difficult for De 
Forest, and he saw few possibilities for personal or financial renewal; he 
used the phrase “sinking into the mire” in his diary. It was in the midst of 
this depression and uncertainty that De Forest took solace in what had, 
after all, gotten him started: the technology. He resumed his experimen- 
tation on receivers, work that he had not had time to pursue while 
demonstrating stations and helping to sell stock. 

While Fessenden concentrated on continuous wave transmission, 
De Forest focused on reception. His experimentation was propelled by 
Fessenden’s successful infringement suits against De Forest’s use of the 
electrolytic detector. Needing a new detector, De Forest returned to 
experiments he had conducted with his partner Edward Smythe in 
1901. 83 While testing their spark gap and “responder” in his apartment, 
De Forest noticed that the Welsbach gas burner that lit the room dimmed 


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Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


and brightened in rhythm with the sparking coil emissions. Although he 
soon discovered that it was the sound of the spark, not the waves it 
emitted, which caused the burner to dim and brighten, he remained 
convinced that gases could detect wireless signals. Four years later, after 
trying several alternatives to the Welsbach burner, he settled on experi- 
menting with an incandescent lamp. It is important to emphasize that De 
Forest believed the bulb would have to contain gases in order to function 
properly. 

In October of 1906, at the monthly meeting of the American Institute 
of Electrical Engineers in New York City, De Forest announced the in- 
vention of his new receiver, the audion. This early vacuum tube repre- 
sented a technical revision of a device patented by Marconi’s scientific 
adviser, Professor John Ambrose Fleming. Before working for Marconi, 
Fleming had been scientific adviser to the Edison Electric Light Company, 
and in 1890 he had investigated what came to be known as the Edison 
effect. This set of experiments led Fleming to discover a method for 
“rectifying” electrical oscillations. 

Using a regular incandescent light bulb, Fleming sealed a small plate 
inside the bulb, next to but not touching the filament. This little plate was 
connected by a platinum wire to the base of the bulb. When the positive 
terminal of a battery was connected to this plate, and the negative termi- 
nal to the filament, a current flowed across the space between the two. 
However, when the connections were reversed, when the positive ter- 
minal was connected to the filament, and the negative terminal to the 
plate, no current flowed. In the first arrangement, the negative charges 
were attracted to the positively charged plate. In the second, a negatively 
charged plate repelled the electrons. 

Fifteen years later, Fleming reconsidered his results. He recognized 
that to produce an audible sound in wireless, the signals would have to 
be rectified, or made to flow in one direction only. Electromagnetic 
waves, consisting of high-frequency alternating current, oscillated up 
and down the antenna wire. The rapidity with which the oscillations 
flowed in both directions did not allow a telephone diaphragm to vibrate 
properly, which is why simply connecting a telephone receiver to a 
wireless aerial had been fruitless. Theoretically, the negatively charged 
plate should repel or cancel out the negative half of the alternating cur- 
rent, converting the oscillations into unidirectional, intermittent current. 
Fleming realized that the light bulb with the tiny metal plate sealed inside 
acted as a valve that suppressed the current in one direction, allowing the 
current of the opposite direction to act as a carrier wave. Retaining the 
vacuum in the bulb, he substituted a tiny metal cylinder for the plate and 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


connected this to the antenna. The filament was connected to the ground 
and the telephone receiver placed in circuit. The Fleming valve was 
patented in 1904 in Britain and 1905 in America. 84 

After all his spadework, it is not surprising that Fleming, with con- 
siderable sarcasm, pointed out the “remarkable similarity between the 
appliance . . . christened by Dr. De Forest an “audion” and a wireless 
telegraphic receiver [Fleming] called an oscillation valve.” 85 In the fall of 
1906 the devices were remarkably similar, and De Forest admitted 
knowing about the valve. But shortly after writing the AIEE paper, De 
Forest made a brilliant addition. Between the metal plate or cylinder and 
the filament, he inserted a third element: a tiny grid with bars of fine wire 
supported by a separate connecting wire and fused through the glass of 
the bulb. This grid magnified the currents in motion and amplified the 
incoming signal enormously. Electrical World described the response in 
the telephone receiver as being “several times as loud as any other 
known form of wireless receiver.” “A listener in the telephone,” the 
magazine enthused, “will hear a sound whose pitch is exactly that of the 
spark.” 86 Most importantly, the audion was capable of picking up the 
undulations of the human voice. The Fleming valve could also receive the 
human voice, but, unlike the audion, it could not amplify or oscillate. The 
exact date of the invention of the grid audion is not known, but it oc- 
curred late in the autumn of 1906. On December 2, De Forest met with 
his patent attorney and sketched out the audion on the back of a breakfast 
menu, and by December 21, the patent application was drawn up. De 
Forest, who was broke at the time, claimed that it took him nearly six 
weeks to raise the fifteen-dollar patent fee. The patent was filed on 
January 29, 1907. 87 

De Forest publicly introduced his three-element grid audion in a 
lecture on March 14, 1907, before the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and 
Sciences. The lecture was attended by a number of boys known as 
amateur operators, who experimented with wireless as a hobby. Several 
of these young men tried the audion. 88 One amateur, who claimed to 
have possessed one of the first audions, recalled that he used the receiver 
successfully for three years: “The first audions had two filaments, and 
when one burned out you used the other. They were a remarkably 
sensitive detector.” 89 However, the audion, while theoretically sophisti- 
cated, had several practical drawbacks. One major problem afflicting the 
audion in 1906 was its low vacuum, the very feature De Forest insisted 
on preserving because he was convinced that the hot gases in the audion 
helped the amplification. Lloyd Espenschied, an amateur who later be- 
came an electrical engineer for AT&T, acknowledged that the audion 


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Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


was sensitive, but he complained that the filaments burned out much too 
quickly, and that the audion “would not hold its adjustment very long, 
and would glow at times and block the signal.” “It did not occur to me,” 
he said, “to wonder why the audion did not come into general use in the 
ensuing years. It was too mysterious and uncertain a device. No two 
bulbs were alike, their life short, and they would block with blue haze.” 
The early audions were also very expensive. Espenschied paid five dol- 
lars for his, a prohibitive price for many people, considering that it equal- 
ed about half a week’s wages. 90 Despite the audion’s initial imperfec- 
tions, De Forest’s early vacuum tube was a revolutionary advance in 
radio and remains one of the most significant inventions of the century. 

De Forest did little developmental work on transmitters and initially 
tried using the spark gap for voice transmission, but “with very disas- 
trous results,” as the transmission was almost unintelligible. 91 He, too, 
needed a method of generating continuous waves. His audion served as 
receiver, and for the transmitter he borrowed from the work of W. B. 
Duddell, an English engineer, and Valdemar Poulsen, a Danish scientist. 
Their arc transmitters generated pulsating or oscillating currents from a 
direct current. 92 De Forest added his own refinements to the arc trans- 
mitter and connected it to a carbon microphone. In these early years, the 
arc was not as successful as theory had suggested it would be. The 
frequency of the wavelength and the sound level often varied; maintain- 
ing their constancy was often quite difficult and sometimes impossible. 
The arc also produced a hissing noise in the telephone receiver. The 
radiations were “encumbered with ‘mush’ and harmonics,” and some- 
times the arc produced no voice at all. 93 Nonetheless, it was a start, and 
with the arc and the audion, De Forest had at least a rudimentary system 
of transmitting and receiving the human voice. 

After resigning from American, De Forest swore that he had always 
deplored the use of wireless as a gimmick for selling stock. But in January 
of 1907, six months after his departure from White’s company, De Forest 
formed a new company, the Radio-Telephone Company. His partner in 
this enterprise was James Dunlop Smith, one of White’s former stock 
salesmen. De Forest wrote to his assistant, Frank E. Butler, “If I could get 
$1000 I would build a little demonstration set working x h mile and that 
would make stock sell like wildfire.” 94 Although early stock sales were 
slow, De Forest was able to borrow one thousand dollars from Harriet 
Stanton Blatch, the noted suffragist and De Forest’s future mother-in-law. 
With this sum he began testing and demonstrating his radiophone. 

The timing of the actual moment of insight remains uncertain, but 
sometime during the insecure winter of 1906—7, De Forest conceived of 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


radio broadcasting. It was an insight fueled less by a compelling technical 
vision and more by the desires and longings of the social outcast. During 
De Forest’s impoverished and lonely spells, he would cheer himself by 
going to the opera. Usually he could only afford a twenty-five-cent ticket, 
which bought him a spot to stand in at the rear of the opera house. De 
Forest was an ardent music lover, and he considered unjust the fact that 
ready access to beautiful music was reserved primarily for the financially 
comfortable. Of course, this feeling was more pronounced when De 
Forest was down and out than when he could indulge in conspicuous 
consumption himself. In either circumstance, however, he appreciated in 
a visceral way the pleasure of access to culture. De Forest was convinced 
that there were thousands of other deprived music fans in America who 
would love to have opera transmitted into their homes. He decided to 
use his radiophone not only for point-to-point message sending, but also 
for broadcasting music and speech. This conception of radio’s place in 
America’s social and economic landscape was original, revolutionary, 
and quite different from that of his competitors. 

Unlike Marconi, who was offering institutional clients a substitute 
system that was similar to one they already knew, De Forest was sug- 
gesting a completely new technical and entertainment system to be mar- 
keted to ordinary people. De Forest’s proposal was premature for several 
reasons. For one thing, the technology was not sufficiently sophisticated: 
the arcs hissed, the microphones burned out, and the receivers picked up 
a blend of music and dots and dashes. He also had only the vaguest 
conception of how broadcasting might generate revenue, and he had not 
adequately considered the issues of marketing and programming. None- 
theless, De Forest’s idea of using wireless telephony to deliver entertain- 
ment to people in their homes had, as we know now, enormous social 
consequences. De Forest envisioned radio as a way to serve the cultur- 
ally and economically excluded — and as a way to make money. Having 
been in his life, by turns, the ridiculed outcast and the exploiter of the 
gullible public, De Forest carried with him two very distinct impulses 
that guided the development of radio. For De Forest, radio broadcasting 
blended his altruistic and his self-serving impulses. It resolved his internal 
contradictions just as it would later straddle, and mask, contradictions in 
the culture at large. 

De Forest began pitching his plan to reporters. He told the New York 
Times, prophetically, “I look forward to the day when opera may be 
brought into every home. Someday the news and even advertising will 
be sent out over the wireless telephone .” 95 As the Review of Reviews 
explained De Forest’s plan, the music would be distributed from a “cen- 


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Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


tral station, such as an opera house.” “The music of singers and orchestra 
could be supplied to all subscribers who would have aerial wires on or 
near their homes,” the Review continued; “The inventor believes that by 
using four different forms of wave as many classes of music can be sent 
out as desired by the different subscribers.” 96 Electrical World hoped that 
such a central station might also “send out orders to the whole police 
force in an instant, publish election or ballgame returns, give free con- 
certs to the whole population and accomplish a good many other things 
which would tend to better the social life of its citizens.” 97 

The press was not uniformly enthusiastic. The New York Times, in a 
1906 editorial titled “A Triumph but Still a Terror,” commented: “There 
is something almost terrifying in the news . . . that attempts at telephon- 
ing without wires have already attained such success that scientists an- 
nounce the approach of the time when a man will be able to speak 
without any conducting wire to a friend in any part of the world.” 98 In 
an interview, the New York Times asked Professor Michael Pupin his 
opinion of the value and application of the wireless telephone. Pupin had 
quite a few reservations: “On land, think what would happen. There 
would be thousands of voices traveling in all directions. There would be 
a babel of voices. And what a chance for long-distance eavesdrop- 
ping. . . . You see, we would never get away from it. What privacy 
would we have left? It’s bad enough as it is, but with the wireless 
telephone one could be called up at the opera, in church, in our beds. 
Where could one be free from interruption?” 99 Electrical World sug- 
gested one cause of the opposition to radio: “The psychological effect of 
the voice reproduction is so powerful that mere telegraphic signaling is 
not in the same class with telephonic signaling . . . [which] can carry 
personality and the force of mind.” 100 

De Forest first tried out his broadcasting idea with the Cahill broth- 
ers, who had invented a giant, organlike instrument called the Telhar- 
monium, a turn-of-the-century synthesizer. The Cahills were trying to 
market background music. Like De Forest, they had been unable to 
formulate or appropriate a viable system for their invention. The Cahills 
had attempted, unsuccessfully, to interest the telephone company in their 
“synthetic music” and to run their own cables under the street to sub- 
scribers’ homes. Unable to acquire a line system for their music, the 
Cahills agreed to try the ether. From February through May of 1907, De 
Forest broadcast the Cahills’ music in New York City. Apparently the 
quality of the broadcasts was unacceptable, because after the four-month 
trial period, the Cahills abandoned radio. 

Undaunted, De Forest pursued his broadcasting dream and was 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


supported, both spiritually and technically, by his fiancee, Nora Stanton 
Blatch. Blatch’s contributions to the early development of voice transmis- 
sion have been either completely ignored or dismissed; one historian has 
identified her simply as a lady pianist. 101 She was, in fact, the grand- 
daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the first woman to receive a civil 
engineering degree from Cornell University. Her mother, Harriet, had 
named her after the heroine in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and had encour- 
aged Nora to be independent and capable of doing a man’s job. Nora 
Blatch was just what De Forest needed: she was technically knowledge- 
able; her family had strong political and commercial connections; and she 
loved music. She and her mother lived in the same Riverside Drive 
apartment building as De Forest; he quickly fell in love with her and 
began wooing her both in person and over the wireless telephone. He 
even, according to one account, imagined that “destiny had brought the 
‘fated one’ to his very door.” 102 After she met De Forest, Blatch quit her 
job as an engineer with the New York City Water Department and began 
studying electrical engineering under Professor Pupin at Columbia. De 
Forest and Blatch worked together in the New York wireless laboratory 
in the evenings, and many local operators heard music or conversation 
interrupting the usual dots and dashes. However, no commercial outlet 
for the radiophone had as yet materialized, and De Forest believed that a 
sensational publicity stunt was needed. 

In February of 1908, Blatch and De Forest were married and went to 
Europe for their honeymoon. While Lee De Forest tried to sell the foreign 
rights to the audion, Nora Blatch De Forest met with her uncle, Theodore 
Stanton, who was the Paris representative for the Associated Press. He 
helped arrange, through the French War Office, for a De Forest radi- 
ophone demonstration from the Eiffel Tower. After a few disappointing 
tests in which the broadcast traveled only six miles, a government wire- 
less operator near Marseilles, 550 miles from Paris, reported receiving De 
Forest’s phonograph music. De Forest immediately envisioned trans- 
atlantic radio broadcasts. 103 

De Forest received good publicity from his success in France, and 
when he returned home, the financial status of the Radio-Telephone 
Company had improved. De Forest had decided that his transatlantic 
radiophone service would transmit between the Eiffel Tower and the 
nearly completed Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower in New York, and 
“James Dunlop Smith thought the idea so wonderful that he had new 
stock certificates struck off, showing the Metropolitan and Eiffel Towers 
shooting off sparks and linked by the legend ‘words without wires.’ ” 
Stock promotion was intensified, and Smith augmented his general sales 


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Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


strategy with carefully targeted pitches. Harriet Stanton Blatch made a 
speech on women’s suffrage over the radiophone which Smith used to 
his advantage in selling stock to suffragists and their sympathizers. In the 
writings of Mary Baker Eddy, a passage appears which reads “Spirit 
needs no wires or electricity to carry messages.” Smith and De Forest 
succeeded in selling stock to hundreds of Christian Scientists by citing this 
passage and assuring the investors that Eddy herself had prophesied 
wireless. In 1909 Smith bought a yacht equipped with De Forest’s wire- 
less telephone and christened it Radio. On weekends, De Forest con- 
ducted demonstrations just off the Rhode Island coast in the hopes of 
enticing the wealthy residents of Newport to invest. 104 

In 1908 and the first half of 1909, De Forest was once again wealthy. 
Like its predecessor, American De Forest, however, the Radio-Tele- 
phone Company was severely mismanaged and survived only because of 
stock sales. De Forest was as guilty as Smith of advocating any un- 
scrupulous method that helped him maintain financial security. When the 
Radio-Telephone Company faced competition in the Midwest from a 
small company owned by a wireless entrepreneur named Thomas Clark, 
De Forest advised his assistant, Frank Butler, “I do not think we should 
worry over the Clark system, only spy on them and spoil their stock sales 
all you can.” Smith and De Forest spent the company’s income on pub- 
licity stunts and lavish lifestyles; little went to improve the apparatus. By 
the end of 1909, Smith decided to resign. He presented De Forest with a 
“balance sheet showing the company in debt some $40,000 with prac- 
tically no cash, then walked out.” 105 

Elmer E. Burlingame, Smith’s chief stock-selling aide, took over and 
helped De Forest reorganize and form yet another new company, North 
American Wireless. Despite his efforts, De Forest had failed to cultivate a 
commercial use for the radiophone. He tried one more time to generate 
an interest in radio by arranging, in January 1910, for the Metropolitan 
Opera Company to broadcast its performance from the roof of the opera 
house. Eager reporters tuned in, as did ship operators and amateurs. The 
publicity was not good. “The warbling of Caruso and Mme. Destinn in 
‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ and ‘Pagliacci,’ ” according to the New York 
Times, “was not clearly audible to the reporters who were summoned to 
hear it at the headquarters of the inventor. ... At the receiving sta- 
tion . . . the homeless song waves were kept from finding themselves by 
constant interruptions . . . [and] the reporters could hear only a ticking 
which the operator finally translated as follows, the person quoted being 
the interrupting operator: T took a beer just now, and now I take my 
seat.’ ” 106 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


By 1910 De Forest was again broke. The Radio-Telephone Com- 
pany was bankrupt, the New York laboratory and factory were shut, 
and Nora Blatch De Forest sued for divorce. Although Blatch had given 
De Forest invaluable help both in the lab and in the marketplace, De 
Forest did not publicly recognize these contributions. Nor did the press. 
He was the brilliant inventor; she was simply his wife. According to one 
biographer, De Forest was extremely difficult to work with in the lab; he 
was “a slave-driving taskmaster, often moody and profane.” 107 Blatch, a 
feminist and a trained engineer, must have balked at such treatment. She 
was also suspicious of the company’s business practices and argued with 
De Forest over James Dunlop Smith’s trustworthiness. The couple also 
disagreed over Blatch’s role after the birth of their first child in the sum- 
mer of 1909. Blatch expected to continue working; De Forest vehe- 
mently disagreed, asserting that once a woman was a mother she was 
“duty bound” to devote all her time to her family. He believed that if a 
woman was unwilling to sacrifice her career for her family, she should 
abstain from marriage. 108 Clearly, the differences between the two had 
become irreconcilable. De Forest wanted Blatch’s help, but only on his 
terms. He fancied himself progressive because he supported women’s 
suffrage, but at home he expected to be the final authority in both busi- 
ness and domestic matters. Blatch’s independence was fine, as long as De 
Forest could define its parameters. Her feminism extended far beyond 
women’s right to vote, however; she expected to have control over how 
she worked and lived. When De Forest challenged that control, Blatch 
left. 

De Forest and Burlingame could not market the stock of the North 
American Wireless Corporation, because the government was finally 
launching an aggressive campaign against wireless stock promotion. De 
Forest left New York City late in 1911 and took a job with the newly 
formed Federal Telegraph Company in San Francisco. However, the 
dreamer and the huckster had already left his mark on the way radio 
would be socially constructed and on how those controlling radio tech- 
nology would come to view their customers. 

De Forest imprinted radio with the possibilities and excesses cap- 
italism allows. He saw his inventions as passports to the American 
dream, as bringing him the wealth, and especially the deference, that 
would elevate and separate him from his childhood in Talladega. De 
Forest believed desperately in upward mobility through invention, but 
his faith was self-serving and cynical, for he was willing to nurture and 
exploit others’ equally desperate hopes of quick success to attain his own. 
He knew the American dream was only possible for a few, yet he 
perpetuated through his promotional material the myth that it was possi- 


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Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


ble for all. In his business practices, De Forest clung to, at the same time 
that he saw through, the get-rich-quick myth. He, not those other un- 
deserving and credulous chumps, would rise to the top. Here was a 
conflicted, complicated man whose attitude toward his investors and, 
later, his audience, was a mixture of identification and contempt. 

De Forest had that rare ability to believe he was above the hoi polloi 
while sharing their yearnings and their tastes. His conviction that people 
would welcome having music and speech brought into their homes 
through radio proved absolutely correct, and his persistence in using the 
invention this way from 1907 on helped pull radio out of the orbit of 
telegraphy and into the pulsating center of mass entertainment. Certainly 
De Forest and Fessenden were worlds apart, occupying different intel- 
lectual, ethical, and cultural spheres. But these two men’s pursuit of 
continuous wave radio and the transmission and reception of the human 
voice completely redirected how radio would be used by the Americans 
Marconi had so beguiled at the yacht races. 


BECAUSE DE FOREST abandoned wireless telegraphy for telephony, 
and NESCO’s business strategies remained short term and ad hoc, oppor- 
tunities to market wireless apparatus still existed in America. The Ameri- 
can Marconi Company, which had concentrated initially on servicing the 
major ocean liners, and then on handling the American end of the trans- 
atlantic business, was forced in 1907 to remain conservative and unag- 
gressive. The marketing vacuum was filled by Abraham White, De For- 
est’s erstwhile backer. After dismissing the inventor, White reorganized 
his wireless concern, dropped De Forest’s name, and formed the United 
Wireless Company. NESCO could not collect the damages it had been 
awarded because American De Forest no longer existed. 109 After Fes- 
senden’s victory in the barretter suit, however, White was compelled to 
find a new receiver, and he had dismissed De Forest’s audion as too 
delicate, erratic, and expensive for mass marketing. H.H.C. Dunwoody, 
vice-president of the De Forest company, had in 1906 discovered that the 
crystal carborundum could be used as a very sensitive and rugged wire- 
less receiver. Armed with this inexpensive receiver, White resumed his 
aggressive sales campaign. In the summer of 1907, White was ousted 
from the presidency of United by a former Confederate army colonel and 
rival stock promoter, “Christopher Columbus” Wilson. According to De 
Forest, White’s stock promotion efforts paled in comparison with Wil- 
son’s. United Wireless quickly became the most prominent wireless con- 
cern in the country. 

Although American De Forest had equipped some American coast- 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


wise ships between 1905 and 1906, many ships remained unequipped in 
1907. Steamship company managers along the Atlantic and especially 
along the Great Lakes were still reluctant to invest in wireless. Wilson 
ensured that most American steamers would install wireless by furnish- 
ing the apparatus without cost. United Wireless also paid the salaries of 
the wireless operators and rarely charged the steamship companies any 
leasing or toll fee for the wireless service. 110 Wilson was committed to 
exposure, which he believed would boost his sales of worthless stock. At 
$150 a share, the stocks provided ample income for Wilson to give away 
as much wireless apparatus as he wanted. Other smaller wireless com- 
panies simply could not afford to meet United’s terms and were forced 
out of the wireless market. By 1908, United monopolized almost all the 
commercial business along the Atlantic coast and controlled wireless on 
the Great Lakes. 111 By 1910, United had equipped 312 American ships, 
as compared with Marconi’s 176 installations, Fessenden’s 6 and De 
Forest’s 5. 112 Thomas Clark, the head of Clark Wireless, which supplied 
the Great Lakes area, was forced out of business by United. He later 
recalled, “In New York I had seen C. C. Wilson, President of United 
Wireless, and I told him he was discrediting wireless for himself and 
everybody. He told me he didn’t give a damn.” 113 

Wilson overcame the initial opposition of the steamship companies 
by providing free wireless service, yet he quickly reestablished skep- 
ticism about the invention by installing shoddy apparatus. In some cases 
United apparatus contained short circuits and such bad connections that 
it would set the ship’s woodwork on fire. In 1910, “apparatus far short of 
the reasonable requirements of the law had in some instances been sup- 
plied, and in some cases ships [had almost departed] with apparatus inert 
and useless.” 114 Consequently, by 1910 most American shore stations 
and ships were equipped with apparatus that daily confirmed the worth- 
lessness of wireless. 

By 1910 the federal government began investigating wireless stock 
fraud. Magazines such as Collier’s Weekly and Success advised readers 
not to invest in United, which was “absurdly over-capitalized.” Elec- 
trical World observed: “It is not too much to say that no important 
invention has ever been the victim of more reckless and culpable exploi- 
tation, or has made less commercial returns for a large expenditure of 
capital.” The magazine’s editors sermonized: “Wireless has been sowing 
its wild oats for too long; it is time now for repentance and reform.” 115 

One company that had not been sowing its wild oats, either tech- 
nically or financially, was the Marconi Company. Between 1906 and 
1911, Marconi’s lab work was still that of the technological revisionist. 


■ 178 ■ 



Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


Unlike his American competitors, Marconi did not pursue voice transmis- 
sion or continuous oscillations. He persevered in his dominant goal, a 
long-distance wireless system capable of competing with the cables. He 
would continue transmitting dots and dashes, and needed only to refine 
the sparking technique to reduce interference and enhance tuning. Mar- 
coni struck a technical compromise between highly damped waves and 
sustained oscillations: discontinuous oscillations. As Marconi explained, 
“It was found to be neither economical nor efficient to attempt to obtain 
continuous waves. Much better results are obtained when groups of 
waves are emitted at regular intervals in such manner that their cum- 
mulative effect produced a clear musical note in the receiver.” 116 In other 
words, he thought discontinuous waves superior to continuous oscilla- 
tions. These groups of waves whose damping would be abbreviated or 
“quenched” were generated by the disc discharger, patented in 1907. 
This transmitter was the direct result of Marconi’s and Fleming’s experi- 
mental work to improve the spark gap and not of any desire to produce 
sustained oscillations. 117 

One problem that had plagued the spark gap was the erosion of the 
gap at the point where the spark was emitted. Fleming reasoned that the 
erosion would be forestalled if the spark balls rotated “so that the point 
at which the discharge took place moved around the circumference of the 
balls.” This technique distributed the deterioration, but it did not solve 
the basic problem. 118 In 1907, building on Fleming’s previous work, 
Marconi assembled three parallel metal discs, the two outside discs 
turned ninety degrees from the middle disc. The middle disc revolved at 
high speed between the other, more slowly rotating, discs. To strike 
particular tones, Marconi lined the circumference of the central spinning 
disc with metal studs serving as a series of electrodes. 119 As each stud 
came opposite the disc, the gap became narrow enough for the spark to 
be struck. When the stud passed the disc, the gap lengthened and the 
spark was quickly extinguished. This very fast rotation produced semi- 
continuous oscillations at the rate of approximately one thousand per 
second. With this new transmitter, the pitch of the received signal be- 
came higher and much more distinct, tuning was easier, and interference 
was decreased. The high, whistlelike pitch of the disc discharger was a 
welcome improvement over the low roar of the spark gap, whose pitch 
was similar to that of static. The disc’s tone could be adjusted to various 
pitches by altering the speed of rotation and the number of studs. 120 This 
invention was not nearly as daring as Fessenden’s alternator, but it was a 
dramatically improved transmitter that was relatively easy and inexpen- 
sive to construct and operate. 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


Although Marconi’s technical work during this era was not as imagi- 
native as Fessenden’s or De Forrest’s, it was nonetheless audacious and 
increasingly expensive. While working to refine the spark gap, Marconi 
and Fleming had discovered that their weak link in the high-power 
stations was the aerial. For all their size, these aerials were still highly 
inefficient. In 1905, when Marconi was working on fortifying the weak 
signals between Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, and Poldhu, Cornwall, he inad- 
vertently discovered a new aerial design that strengthened reception 
considerably. He noticed that an aerial wire lying on the ground received 
more strongly when its free end pointed away from the transmitter. This 
observation spurred experimentation that led to the inverted L or bent 
aerial, patented in 1905. While Marconi himself acknowledged that “the 
limitation of transmission to one direction is not very sharply defined,” 
the aerial did serve to magnify and partially channel the signal. It was this 
amplification that finally encouraged Marconi to try to inaugurate the 
transatlantic service. 121 

In the winter of 1905, Marconi had moved the Glace Bay, Nova 
Scotia, station to a new location, five miles distant, which provided more 
room for the predecessor to the inverted L, the umbrella aerial, which 
had a diameter of twenty-two hundred feel. Only a few months after the 
relocation and reassembly of the Glace Bay station, Marconi discovered 
the directional aerial. Although the aerial had to be redone, the new 
Glace Bay station was advanced enough for transatlantic work. The 
Cornwall site, however, was too vulnerable to storms and did not have 
enough room for the inverted L aerial. Marconi proposed to his board of 
directors that an enormous station be built at Clifden, Ireland, a spot 
closer to North America. Cuthbert Hall, the managing director, was so 
concerned about the financial strain a new station would impose that he 
approached the British Admiralty for help. The Admiralty replied that 
“Whilst they would be glad to see the long distance station removed 
from so exposed a position as Poldhu . . . they [were] not prepared to 
defray the costs of removal and the other expenses involved.” 122 

Thus, a reluctant board of directors agreed that the company would 
shoulder the burden of what they hoped would not be a speculative 
venture and approved construction of the station in western Ireland. The 
Clifden station was both remote and colossal; it covered 350 acres and 
employed engines of 1,100 horsepower. Its output was 300 kilowatts. 
Transportation to the station was provided by the company’s own rail- 
way, and the boilers were fired by peat cut from the bog. The station 
featured a mile-long inverted L aerial and the disc discharger. Marconi 
wrote to his wife, “We had great trouble with the aerials at Clifden, it 


■ 180 • 



Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


was so difficult to get them up in the rain and snow.” Clifden was a giant 
and costly station, the “ultimate in spark telegraphy.” 123 

After inaugurating the transatlantic service, the Marconi Company 
and its American subsidiary were forced by financial difficulties to econ- 
omize. The Clifden station had drained the company’s resources, and 
income in 1907 was insignificant. The company was forced to dismiss 
150 factory workers, and senior technicians worked without wages. 
Cuthbert Hall wrote to Marconi that he was “extremely busy. Half my 
time is taken up in very unsuccessful attempts to get money, and a great 
part of what is left in seeing how we can do without it.” 124 Marconi put 
all his own money into the company to keep it operating. In 1908, Hall 
resigned as managing director, in part because he and Marconi disagreed 
over how vigorously to litigate patent infringements; to restore confi- 
dence, Marconi himself took over the position. In addition to these set- 
backs, the British government in 1908 ratified the treaty of the 1906 
convention, thus rendering illegal the Marconi Company’s nonintercom- 
munication policy. The Marconi-built and -maintained shore stations 
were supposed to communicate with apparatus of any make. The British 
Government had reserved the right to establish its own shore stations to 
compete with Marconi. 125 

John Bottomley, the general manager of the American Marconi 
Company, wrote to Cuthbert Hall in January of 1908. “Receipts have 
fallen off considerably, my cash balance is very low,” he wrote, adding, 
“The finances of the company generally are giving me a great deal of 
thought and some anxiety.” 126 He described the strict austerity measures 
he had adopted to save money, and after reminding Hall that the Ameri- 
can company had “never asked the English company for any monetary 
assistance whatever,” Bottomley asked for the money the parent com- 
pany owed its subsidiary. Hall turned Bottomley down, asserting: “We 
are absolutely in the need of money for current expenses.” 127 Despite the 
New York Time's public support of the transatlantic service, its represen- 
tatives privately complained to Bottomley about the company’s rates. 
The paper was insisting on either reduced rates or no charges at all for 
messages received late. Bottomley, who acknowledged the value of “the 
great work” the paper had done for the company, was inclined to 
comply. 

What Bottomley wanted additional money for was a high-power, 
long-distance station in the United States. Concerned about the skep- 
ticism surrounding wireless, which hampered business, Bottomley 
wrote, “I believe that it is essential for the good of the service that just as 
soon as possible a station for interoceanic transmission should be erected 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


in the United States, as really it seems that the people here do not take 
very seriously the fact that the stations in Canada and Ireland are now in 
communication with each other; a station erected in the U.S. would 
bring the matter right home to all the businessmen in this community, and 
I feel confident that it would lead to a very quick enhancement of the 
value of the stock of the company.” 128 Bottomley had difficulty raising 
money for such a station, and between 1906 and 1910 the American 
company remained in a holding pattern, duly providing ship-to-shore 
service and handling the New York end of the transatlantic service. The 
American company’s chief engineer during this period was not known 
for his creativity, and thus little interesting or innovative work was done 
to challenge De Forest’s or Fessenden’s breakthroughs. 129 So, while the 
company’s structure remained stable, its strategy languished. 

Marconi kept technical and commercial experiments to a minimum 
during 1908 and 1909. He did little research, and the company did not 
support investigations into wireless telephony. Instead, Marconi quietly 
planned his ultimate marketing scheme, of which the transatlantic ser- 
vice was only a part. Denied through regulation the prerogative of deter- 
mining with whom he would communicate, Marconi now sought to 
preserve and advance his company’s interests through a grander plan. 
The Marconi Company would establish the first around-the-world wire- 
less network; it would “girdle the globe with wireless.” The establish- 
ment of the transatlantic service convinced Marconi that several more 
strategically located and powerful stations like the one at Clilden could 
link the entire British Empire. 130 

In the midst of this technically fallow period, Marconi wrote to his 
wife, “Some of the papers have said that I have got the Nobel Prize of 
£8,000. It rather makes one’s mouth water to think about it just now, but 
I suppose it’s not true.” 131 But the papers were correct, and in 1909 
Marconi shared the prize in physics with Ferdinand Braun of Germany. 
The award, which must have been extremely gratifying to a man fre- 
quently dismissed by the scientific community, further legitimized Mar- 
coni as the inventor of wireless. This was a concept Marconi was becom- 
ing eager to assert in the courts. 

By 1910, Marconi was frustrated by his management tasks and was 
anxious to return to research. Through his wife’s family, Marconi met 
Godfrey Isaacs, an enterprising businessman with excellent financial 
connections. In January 1910, Isaacs became the new managing director 
of the Marconi Company. Both the timing of this appointment and the 
appointment itself were excellent. Isaacs was determined to settle the 
company’s commercial affairs and to enforce strictly the Marconi patents. 


• 182 ■ 



Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


Within a year of his appointment, Isaacs achieved a negotiated settlement 
with Marconi’s major European rival, Telefunken, whereby the two 
companies formed a new German company in which Marconi held a 45 
percent interest and Telefunken a 55 percent share. The new corporation 
handled all the German mercantile marine business. Isaacs also worked 
out a patent-pooling arrangement between the two companies which 
eliminated patent disputes. 132 

Marconi’s two-year program of fiscal austerity had prevented him 
from developing more sophisticated apparatus whose patents would 
extend and fortify his technical position. But the retrenchment policy had 
stabilized the company’s finances, which meant that by 1910 Marconi 
was financially prepared to file several long overdue patent suits. Several 
major American and European companies were violating Marconi pa- 
tents, especially the “four sevens” tuning patent, and Isaacs was deter- 
mined to prosecute all infringers. Thus the company was able to compen- 
sate for its three-year experimental lull by suing infringers, some of 
whose innovations Marconi then acquired. The company’s consolidation 
under Isaacs gradually eliminated competition, and now Marconi was 
able to buy much of what he had not invented. 

In 1911, the Marconi Company won its case against British Radio- 
Telegraph and Telephone, which had infringed on the “four sevens.” The 
same year, the company absorbed the Lodge-Muirhead Syndicate, came 
to an agreement with Sir Oliver Lodge over tuning patents, and named 
Lodge associate scientific adviser. 133 Buoyed by its success in Britain, the 
company was prepared to confront its American competitors. In 1911, 
Bottomley issued a portentous statement to the New York Times: “Our 
rivals must either discover a device at present undreamed of, or pay such 
royalties as the Marconi Company decides to require, or go out of busi- 
ness altogether.” 134 

The American company Bottomley and Marconi most wanted to 
drive out of business was United Wireless. In this they received consider- 
able assistance from the activities of the Justice Department. De Forest’s 
and United Wireless’s stock promotion activities had been described in all 
their lurid details in an expose in Success magazine in 1907. Other pub- 
lications followed suit. In addition, the U.S. Navy and the Justice Depart- 
ment had received increasing numbers of letters between 1907 and 1909 
asking government officials for corroboration of the usually extravagant 
claims these companies made about their sales and net worth. The Justice 
Department launched an investigation of De Forest’s companies and 
United Wireless, devoting most of its energies to the latter. In June of 
1910, U.S. Post Office inspectors and police “raided the luxurious offices 


• 183 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


of the United Wireless Telegraph Company.” 135 Christopher Columbus 
Wilson and several other officers of the company were arrested and 
charged with mail fraud. Asserting that United had perpetuated “one of 
the most gigantic schemes to defraud investors that has ever been un- 
earthed in this country,” postal officials estimated that approximately 
twenty-eight thousand holders of worthless United Wireless stock stood 
to lose nearly twenty million dollars. 136 Indictments were handed down 
on August 4; sixty-four-year-old C. C. Wilson, ever the flamboyant 
showman, chose that day to marry his eighteen-year-old secretary. The 
trial proceded through the fall, when Wilson was found guilty of con- 
tempt of court for failing to turn over the company’s books for inspection. 
On May 29, 1911, Wilson and four of his associates were found guilty of 
mail fraud. Wilson was sentenced to three years in the Atlanta Penitenti- 
ary. United Wireless, which had managed to continue operating during 
the trial, was put into the hands of receivers. A committee of United 
stockholders organized in the hope of taking over the company. 137 

The government’s action served at least two purposes: it prosecuted 
criminal activity and it made clear the difference between responsible, 
reputable wireless companies such as Marconi’s and irresponsible de- 
viants like United. The trial also played beautifully into the Marconi 
Company’s hands. After the years of technical and economic retrench- 
ment beginning late in 1907, the Marconi Company had successfully 
conserved its resources and refortified itself. United Wireless, which had 
grown rapidly during those very years, was by 1910 the dominant 
American wireless company and a major competitor. Isaacs was deter- 
mined to challenge United’s position as soon as possible. The trial made 
the company extremely vulnerable, and thus irresistible. 

Striking in the spring of 1911, at “the critical time of the criminal 
trial,” Isaacs filed suit against United for infringement of Marconi’s “four 
sevens” tuning patent. 138 The receivers and the committee of stock- 
holders had failed to agree on United’s management; thus, they were 
unable at first to reach a negotiated solution with Marconi, so Marconi 
came to the United States in late winter of 1912 to begin his infringement 
suit, which clearly he would win. By March, United agreed to a merger, 
which actually was a takeover. The Marconi Company assumed control 
of all of United’s assets, which included approximately four hundred ship 
installations and seventy shore stations. In exchange, the organized 
United stockholders received Marconi Company stock. John Bottomley, 
the general manager of American Marconi, referred to United as a “hope- 
less mess.” At first, sorting out United’s affairs was an organizational 
nightmare; Bottomley pul it this way: “A spirit of carelessness seems to 


• 184 ■ 



Inventors as Entrepreneurs 


have run through the whole conduct of the business of the United Wire- 
less Company which is almost unparalleled in business history.” Once 
Bottomley got the paper work straightened out, he was able to write an 
annual report very different from the gloomy one he had submitted in 
1907. Then he had complained that the company barely had any money. 
Now he wrote, “The condition of the treasury is satisfactory, if not 
plethoric. We have, together with cash on hand and investments running 
4-12 months, the sum of over five million dollars, all of which is avail- 
able at any time.” 139 

Marconi was elated. He wrote to his wife, “They have admitted to 
having copied or stolen my patents and all their stations are to be called 
Marconi stations — this will do our company heaps of good.” “Heaps of 
good” was certainly something of an understatement, for, as he added 
more definitively a few lines later, Marconi would “control all the wire- 
less in America.” 140 Marconi noted that NESCO, given its court battle 
with Fessenden, was virtually out of business. De Forest, who had 
moved to San Francisco in 1911 after the failure of his latest company and 
his marriage, was arrested in April 1912, also on charges of mail fraud. 
“So you see,” Marconi confided to his wife, “Your Dick is slowly over- 
coming his enemies — of course it’s not right to glory over it.” 141 In public, 
he never did, but in private, he couldn’t help himself. It was a momentous 
victory. 


BY 1911, THEN, important technical and managerial developments had 
occurred which would guide radio’s subsequent development. Two crit- 
ically important components, Fessenden’s alternator and De Forest’s au- 
dion, the one capable of sending, the other of receiving the human voice, 
had demonstrated that wireless telephony was possible. Marconi had no 
comparable apparatus and had eschewed continuous wave transmis- 
sion. This meant that within a few years, when it became clear that 
continuous wave technology would supplant the old spark gaps, Mar- 
coni would find himself in a technically disadvantageous position. His 
efforts to remedy this situation by trying to buy American alternators 
activated the chain of events that led to the formation of RCA. Here was 
a technical oversight, the absence of a technological idea, which was to 
have important repercussions. 

These important developments occurred primarily in the private 
sphere, behind the scenes. The press was unsure where wireless was 
going between 1906 and 1911, but between the persistent complaints 
about interference, the exposes of stock fraud scams, and the lack of 


• 185 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


stability, and profits, among wireless firms, the invention did not seem 
destined to revolutionize commercial communications as was once pre- 
dicted. There were Americans, however, who had embraced the in- 
vention and were putting it to uses quite different from those Marconi 
had in mind. These individuals, the amateur operators, took Marconi’s 
invention to places he had never dreamed of and used it in ignorance or 
defiance of his carefully planned corporate strategies. 


■ 186 


CHAPTER SIX 


POPULAR CULTURE AND POPULIST 
TECHNOLOGY 
The Amateur Operators 

1906-1912 


ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 3, 1907, two weeks after Marconi began his 
transatlantic wireless news service, the New York Times Magazine fea- 
tured as its lead story an article titled “New Wonders with ‘Wireless’ — 
And by a Boy!” 1 The large headline spanned all six columns, and the 
article covered the entire page. The youthful star of the article was 
Walter J. Willenborg, a previously unknown wireless experimenter, a 
twenty-six-year-old resident of Hoboken, New Jersey, and a student at 
Stevens Institute. A large oval portrait of Willenborg in the center of the 
page was surrounded by photographs of his home-built wireless station, 
which included transmitting and receiving equipment. 

Willenborg had tuned his apparatus and fitted the Times reporter 
with headphones so the reporter could listen in to the dots and dashes 
being exchanged between Marconi’s two distant transatlantic stations at 
Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, and Clifden, Ireland. For the reporter, the air 
suddenly came alive: “Messages from everywhere to everywhere and 
back buzzed into our receiving instrument. Only those in cipher es- 
caped.” The reporter became intoxicated by his brief foray into the ether. 
Newly returned from his adventures in the “great void,” he excitedly 
advised his readers: “For intrigue, plot and counterplot, in business or in 
love or science, take to the air and tread its paths, sounding your way for 
the footfall of your friend’s or enemy’s message. There is a romance, a 
comedy, and a tragedy yet to be written.” Only those with wireless 
apparatus would be privy to the unfolding melodrama, however. The 
Times reporter continued: “The millions below us knew nothing of this 
strange intercourse through the night above” — they were unawares, left 
out, tethered to more earthbound discourse. They had no idea that the 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


“folds of the night” contained “hidden, mystic jabbering.” They did not 
know that in the ether, “ghosts tiptoe by night.” They did not know they 
were surrounded by an invisible and mystical realm to which youthful 
“wizards” such as Willenborg were privately gaining access. 

Willenborg, an otherwise ordinary young man, had become a celeb- 
rity through mechanical tinkering. He told the reporter that he expected 
to be exchanging messages with Paris and Berlin within a month. He 
claimed that his system was superior to all others and that his messages 
would be “sent and received without interference or detection” by any 
other system. The young man’s claims were not challenged; rather, they 
served as secondary headlines for the article. To certify the boy’s success 
further, the reporter noted: “Young as he is, Willenborg has been em- 
ployed by the United States to perfect wireless tests aboard ship, and has 
been highly paid for his work.” The reporter affirmed that, although 
Willenborg’s father was well-to-do, the inventor did not rely on his 



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Amateur operators like Walter J. Willenborg became inventor-heroes 
in the popular press. 


• 188 ■ 




Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


father’s largesse: “He is so frequently called as an expert witness in so 
many important suits over electrical matters that his fees give him ample 
resources.” 

In the hands of the Times reporter, Willenborg became a role model 
for other boys. His ordinariness and diligence were emphasized: “He is 
no prodigy. What he has done has been done by hard work. He began at 
fifteen in a little closet-like room on the top floor of his house.” His 
physical features also resembled those of a Horatio Alger hero, for he 
was “grey-eyed, clear cut of feature, intent,” and he had a furrowed 
brow. He even showed admirable discretion and a touch of chivalry. At 
one point while he was listening in to the messages being exchanged 
between passing ocean liners, he overheard a “sweetheart message” 
sent between a man and a woman traveling in different ships. While 
Willenborg “enjoyed hearing it,” he “said that it wouldn’t be right to 
hand it around.” Yet Willenborg was not prissy. His equipment was 
extremely powerful, and he had the ability to “destroy” the messages of 
others at will. The reporter asked for a demonstration. Willenborg 
scanned the ether for an appropriate target, and overheard an operator 
from the Atlantic Highlands beginning to transmit a message. Willenborg 
leaned on his transmitting key for thirty seconds or so and then switched 
on his receiver. “ ‘Lay off, New York’ came the call from the Highlands 
man. Again Willenborg shoved out his air waves. ‘Go to h- -1’ came from 
the Highlands man. ‘Certainly’ [Willenborg] replied, and again began the 
clamor. ‘O.K.’ finally sent the Highlands man, meaning that he would 
wait and [Willenborg] could proceed with [his] message.” This victory 
prompted Willenborg and the reporter to begin “chatting and laughing 
over the plight of the Atlantic Highlands man.” 

Willenborg made excellent copy, which was not lost on the editors 
of St. Nicholas, “An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks.” In April 1908, 
a story about Willenborg appeared in its pages under the headline “A 
Young Expert in Wireless Telegraphy.” 2 The author cautioned his read- 
ers: “Even today there are young folks who make the same mistake in 
thinking that all great things that are worth doing have been done; all the 
great discoveries made; all the grand inventions finished.” They became 
discouraged and idle and were in danger of letting opportunities and 
knowledge slip by. But not Willenborg: “He decided to try in his own 
way to learn at home all that was already known and then he would try 
to learn more.” The writer emphasized that Willenborg was “a rather 
quiet young man with a pleasant face” and “simple and natural man- 
ners.” But “when he speaks,” the writer reported, “we find he talks like 
a man of science.” The article described Willenborg’s apparatus, the dis- 


■ 189 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


tances he was able to traverse by wireless, and his ability to listen to “the 
faint, as it were, whispered words spelled across the Atlantic.” “Think of 
it!” exclaimed the author. “Only twenty and yet a man of science, an 
inventor and skillful operator in this new art. Could anything be more 
inspiring to every boy and man?” 

Willenborg was the young man the press chose to represent the 
many other nameless boy operators in America. He was the perfect role 
model for young men facing the beginning of the twentieth century. His 
story embodied several trends: the increasingly important role popular 
culture and journalism were playing in identifying and reinforcing ac- 
ceptable norms of behavior, the boom in instructive hobbies with their 
many “amateur” practitioners, and the rise of the boy inventor-hero as a 
popular culture archetype. His story also captured a more subtle yet 
profound process: the gradual redefinition of what it meant to be a man, 
particularly a white, middle-class man, in America. 

The boy on the verge of manhood who might want to emulate 
Willenborg was surrounded in 1907 by vivid yet often conflicting defini- 
tions of masculinity and success. On the one hand, the physical culture 
movement of the 1890s, the explosion in competitive sports with their 
“organized physical combat,” the revival of boxing, and the glorification 
of the “strenuous life” by the nation’s president all equated true mas- 
culinity with physical strength, which one should be more than willing 
to test and assert. 3 A new respect, even reverence, for man’s “primitive” 
side was revealed in the success of Jack London’s Call of the Wild and 
Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzati. 4 The first Boy Scout manual, which 
addressed a legion of new enthusiasts, warned boys not to become “flat- 
chested cigarette-smokers, with shaky nerves and doubtful vitality,” but 
to be “robust, manly, self-reliant.” 5 According to this ideal, it was not 
enough to be physically vigorous; men had to have forceful, commanding 
personalities, as well. 6 All of these traits, it was believed, were best 
cultivated by a more active life in which men were more directly in 
contact with nature. 

On the other hand, it was clear that in the business world, physical 
strength mattered little: physical combat was a metaphor for other kinds 
of confrontations. Increasingly, what landed a young man a good job, 
what gave him an edge in the race for success, was intelligence, educa- 
tion, and certain skills. The increase in high school enrollments, the grow- 
ing popularity of adult education, and the self-improvement craze all 
attested to the new importance attached to education and specialized 
knowledge. 7 Boys educated in both academic and corporate institutions 
learned that having a “forceful personality” was, in reality, often either 


• 190 • 



Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


unattainable or a liability. Despite the prevailing mythology, much of a 
man’s life was spent indoors, in urban areas, away from the enlivening 
and therapeutic tonic of the outdoor life. In reality, being the master of 
one’s environment, or having mastery over other men, was, for many, 
simply not possible. 

For a growing subgroup of American middle-class boys, these ten- 
sions were resolved in mechanical and electrical tinkering. Trapped be- 
tween the legacy of genteel culture and the pull of the new primitivism of 
mass culture, many boys reclaimed a sense of mastery, indeed masculinity 
itself, through the control of technology. The boys lacking “animal mag- 
netism” could still triumph over nature if they controlled the right kind of 
machine. If they failed to recognize how the desire for adventure, com- 
bat, and the assertion of strength, on the one hand, could be reconciled 
with the need to prepare for life in the modern world, on the other, 
popular books and magazines were there to remind them. Everything 
could be achieved through technical mastery. Playing with technology 
was, more than ever, glorified as a young man’s game. Even the Boy 
Scout manual urged boys to be “handy with tools .” 8 Few inventions 
were more accessible to the young man than the latest marvel, wireless 
telegraphy. Just as articles giving instructions on “Building Your Own 
Wireless Set” began appearing with increasing frequency, so did stories 
and books that celebrated boy wireless experimenters. This was no 
insignificant development, for the popularization of wireless experimen- 
tation had, for a time, as decided an effect on radio’s development as did 
the inventors, the navy, or the corporate world. 

The stories about Willenborg captured the many attractions wire- 
less experimentation might hold for a young man. On a practical level, if 
the boy was successful, he could make extra money from his pastime. He 
might become the center of attention and even get his picture in the 
newspaper. He would have technical knowledge and skills few others 
possessed. He learned a code. But beyond these advantages, the boy 
would enter a new realm in which science and romance commingled. He 
became an explorer. He both triumphed over and was in harmony with 
nature. Through wireless, the experimenter went through the looking 
glass, to a never-never land in which he heard the disembodied “voices” 
of ships’ captains, newspaper men, famous inventors, or lovers passing in 
the night. This was an invisible, mysterious realm, somewhere above 
and beyond everyday life, where the rules for behavior couldn’t be 
enforced — in fact, were not yet even established. The boy who entered 
it could, without detection, eavesdrop on the conversations of others. He 
could participate in contests of strength, power, and territory, and win 


• 191 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


them without any risk or physical danger. He heard things others did not, 
and he did things maybe he should not have done. He could please his 
parents by acquiring this instructive hobby, and he could defy them by 
using it, without fear of being discovered, to misbehave. In this realm, in 
the “folds of the night,” by mastering a new technology while letting his 
imagination and his antisocial inclinations loose, he could be, simul- 
taneously, a boy and a man, a child and an adult. He could also straddle 
old and new definitions of masculinity. 

Willenborg was the latest incarnation of the boy-hero, a central 
figure in popular literature for decades. In the early 1900s the boy-hero 
remained a stock character; only the basis of heroism changed. Willen- 
borg’s early predecessors, in the 1870s and 1880s, were the young cow- 
boy heroes of dime novels who, like “Deadwood Dick,” triumphed over 
the wild frontier with its animals, Indians, and foreign terrain. Dick, “a 
youth of an age somewhere between sixteen and twenty,” could count 
on his “muscular development and animal spirits” to achieve his victo- 
ries. 9 He asserted his masculinity directly through physical endurance 
and conquest. Thus, he was quite different from the other boy-heroes so 
popular during the same era, the protagonists of Horatio Alger’s stories. 
These heroes were hard working, morally upright, self-reliant, and phys- 
ically sturdy. Instead of fighting train robbers or “redskins,” they sought 
to overcome villains ready to foreclose on the mortgage, supercilious 
rich boys, or the lure of the pool hall. Being a successful man in Alger’s 
stories meant overcoming poverty and a chaotic, corrupt environ- 
ment. More importantly, it meant becoming middle class, making money, 
and joining a business in which a boy could work his way up. Mas- 
culinity here meant solvency and respectability; it was measured by 
material success. It was made possible, in Alger’s stories, through a fluke 
accident or lucky break, in which the hero saved a young girl from peril 
and then learned her father was an extremely grateful millionaire. By 
1900, with the obvious consolidation and hegemony of the corporate 
sector, the prospect of the mythic lucky break seemed dated and naive. 
Young men had seen real rags-to-riches stories in the newspapers, but the 
vehicle had not always been luck: it had been, quite frequently, technical 
mastery. 

In dime novels and other juvenile literature, heroes such as Ragged 
Dick and Deadwood Dick gave way to Nick Carter and Frank Mer- 
riwell, two heroes popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth 
centuries. Carter, a young detective, possessed “strong muscles and terri- 
ble fists.” But, more importantly, he was highly intelligent. He was a 
master of disguise and spoke “almost every known language, as well as 


• 192 • 



Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


many that are comparatively unknown.” His cases took him to hidden 
valleys in Nepal, to undersea kingdoms or lost civilizations in the Ama- 
zon. Frank Merriwell, who first appeared in 1896, had been to prep 
school and was attending Yale, although he occasionally had to leave 
Yale for financial reasons. He was an excellent athlete, always leading his 
school teams to victory. Of course he showed “courage, push, determina- 
tion and stick-to-it-iveness.” He and his friends had numerous adventures 
as they tracked down various rascals. 10 

These characters had much in common with the earlier heroes. They 
were brave, resourceful, valiant, morally decent, cheerful, and hard 
working. Yet several important characteristics distinguished these boy- 
heroes from their predecessors and set the stage for the popularization of 
wireless. These turn-of-the-century boys were distinctly middle class. 
Specific mention was made of their educational background. Physical 
combat, when it did occur, took place more frequently on the playing 
field. Brute force or violence was less essential to their success than sharp 
analytical skills and mechanical flair. What set these boys apart from 
others was not luck, it was skill. 

Concerns about technical mastery and the stock figure of the boy- 
hero came together in a new character: the boy inventor-hero. Tom 
Swift, of course, was the apotheosis of the boy inventor-hero. His roots 
lay not only in earlier juvenile literature and dime novels, but also in the 
science fiction of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Like the earlier heroes, Tom 
mastered his environment, but not with his fists or guns. He used ma- 
chines. Like other turn-of-the-century heroes, Tom possessed foresight 
and vision and the power of thought and will. 11 He made a social contri- 
bution through his inventions. The stories about him and his inventive 
capacities were extravagant, but Tom was still a hero boys could emulate 
on a more modest scale, the way Willenborg had. 

The boy inventor-hero, like the inventor-heroes constructed by the 
press, exemplified how mass entertainment symbolically made sense of 
technical change. Would-be Willenborgs were surrounded by popular 
culture celebrations of technical mastery. As Wild West shows and cir- 
cuses declined in popularity, vaudeville, a genre oriented more toward 
the dilemmas posed by urbanization, mechanization, and immigration, 
reached its heyday. Vaudeville contained its share of animal acts and 
western motifs, but it also confronted technology head on. For example, 
one famous and favorite vaudeville routine performed during the first 
decade of the century consisted of a team of men taking apart and reas- 
sembling a Ford on stage in eight minutes. 12 At Coney Island, machines 
brought pleasure, wonder, and excitement. 13 Early films featuring auto- 


• 193 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


mobiles, trains, and airplanes celebrated those who could control the 
machinery and made fun of those who could not. Through a range of 
action-filled tales, formulistic plots, and broad and sometimes vulgar 
humor, American culture symbolically addressed the tensions and con- 
tradictions brought about by the seeming flood of new machines and 
gadgets. The man who was befuddled by all this machinery was a 
clown, emasculated; the man who made technology his slave, a genius 
newly empowered. 

The emergence of the boy inventor-hero is important to the early 
history of radio because the genre of popular juvenile writing surround- 
ing this new hero provided information about wireless and encouraged 
boys to experiment with the invention. It also placed wireless work 
within the larger context of contemporary heroism. Most importantly, 
the popular writings glorifying boy experimenters presented ideas about 
wireless and the ether which were totally at odds with those held by 
Marconi and military officials. The stories about Willenborg cast wireless 
as a young man’s toy and the ether as his playground. In the magical, 
almost other-wordly realm described by the Times reporter, the concepts 
of corporate monopoly or military preemption seemed alien, mean spir- 
ited, and completely unenforceable. 

The growing audience of wireless enthusiasts mattered little to an 
entrepreneur such as Marconi. He had fixed his gaze firmly on the com- 
munications grid established by the cable companies, and he sought to 
mimic, elaborate on, and compete with it. The aspirations of many mid- 
dle- and lower-class Americans, fanned by the country’s democratic 
myths and participatory ideology, and symbolically represented in popu- 
lar culture, were relatively foreign to Marconi. Certainly they did not fit 
into his corporate calculations. For him, the popular arts had nothing 
whatsoever to do with wireless telegraphy. It was this oversight that 
began to drive a wedge between Marconi’s original vision of his in- 
vention’s applications and the ultimate use to which it was put in the 
United States. Within fifteen years, radio would become the vehicle 
through which popular culture was imprinted on electrical communica- 
tions and was brought more directly and brazenly into the home than 
ever before. The year 1906 marked the beginning of this revolutionary 
trend, for, just when stories such as the ones about Willenborg began to 
proliferate, certain technical opportunities emerged which made emulat- 
ing the boy wonder much easier. 


FROM 1906 TO 1912, when American wireless companies were on the 
verge of declaring or had in fact declared bankruptcy, and when the 


■ 194 ■ 



Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


corporate sphere publicly expressed indifference toward the invention, 
America experienced its first radio boom. Thousands of people, believing 
in a profitable future for the invention, bought hundreds of thousands of 
dollars worth of stock in the various fledgling wireless companies. Oth- 
ers took even more decisive action: like Willenborg, they began to con- 
struct and use their own wireless stations. These Americans came to be 
known as the amateur operators, and by 1910, their use of wireless was 
being described in newspapers and magazines around the country. The 
Outlook outlined the emerging communications network: “In the past 
two years another wireless system has been gradually developing, a 
system that has far outstripped all others in size and popularity. . . . 
Hundreds of schoolboys in every part of the country have taken to this 
most popular scientific fad, and, by copying the instruments used at the 
regular stations and constructing apparatus out of all kinds of electrical 
junk, have built wireless equipments that in some cases approach the 
naval stations in efficiency.” 14 

Shortly after Marconi introduced his invention, the press predicted 
that eventually Americans would communicate with each other using 
their own apparatus and would not have to rely on the telegraph or 
telephone. The amateurs began making these predictions a reality. Unlike 
their doubting elders, who thought wireless too impractical or too unre- 
munerative, these boys believed earnestly in the new marvel and were 
eager to explore its possibilities. Through the popular culture, these 
youngsters witnessed, unhindered as yet by acquired disbelief, the unre- 
fined and unself-conscious aspirations of the culture, especially the hope 
that technology could serve as the vehicle for individual and societal 
progress. Businessmen and military men were not part of this world, and 
they no doubt considered such visions of wireless unrealistic. But the 
amateurs were captivated by the idea of harnessing electrical technology 
to communicate with others, and they were not deterred by a lack of 
secrecy or by interference from other operators. In fact, these features, 
considered a major disadvantage by institutional customers, increased 
the individual amateur’s pool of potential contacts and the variety of 
information he could both send and receive. 

How were the amateurs able to master this particular technology? 
The first and most tangible development was the availability, in 1906, of 
an inexpensive and simple radio receiver. This was the crystal set, a 
device that could, for reasons that had not yet been explained, detect 
radio waves. The events at a receiving station were the same as those at 
the transmitting station, but in reverse sequence. At the transmitting end, 
inventors had to devise the most efficient method of generating very high 
frequency alternating current from a direct current source. At the receiv- 


195 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


ing end, the problem was “rectifying” these oscillations: translating high- 
frequency alternating current back to a unidirectional pulsating current 
that could flow through a telephone receiver. Hertzian waves are of such 
a high frequency that the telephone diaphragm alone could not handle 
their speed or rapid reversal of direction. By 1906, both Fleming and De 
Forest had established the importance of rectifying incoming electromag- 
netic waves. Fleming’s valve and De Forest’s audion were sophisticated 
and expensive receivers that allowed the current to run in one direction 
only. The introduction of these receivers represented a major advance in 
wireless which rendered the invention less accessible, intellectually and 
financially, to the scientific dabbler. Wireless was becoming less simple. 
However, this apparent progression toward increasingly complex and 
expensive components did not continue unswervingly. 

General H.H.C. Dunwoody of the army, also affiliated with Ameri- 
can De Forest and then United Wireless, discovered in 1906 that car- 
borundum (the compound of carbon and silicon), when used as a wireless 
detector, suppressed half of the incoming wave frequencies. A few 
months later, G. W. Pickard, co-founder (with John Firth) of the Wireless 
Specialty Apparatus Company, patented his silicon receiver based on the 
same principle. Inventors did not understand how the crystal worked, 
but they did know that it was a sensitive, durable, inexpensive receiver 
that was simple to operate and required no renewal of parts. 15 At the 
time, how and why the crystals worked as receivers was not as impor- 
tant as their simplicity and very low cost. Some spots on the crystal, 
especially the sharper edges, were more sensitive than others. The 
crystal was placed between two copper contact points that were adjust- 
able so the pressure could be regulated and the most sensitive portion of 
the mineral selected. To keep the contact as small as possible, often a thin 
wire (known popularly as the catwhisker) made contact with the miner- 
al. Because the catwhisker was “springy,” it was less easily upset by 
vibrations or a ship’s roll. Like its more sophisticated counterparts, the 
crystal could detect voice transmissions. 16 

The ramifications of the introduction of the crystal detectors cannot 
be overemphasized. The crystals contributed more than any other com- 
ponent to the democratization of wireless, the concomitant wireless 
boom, and the radio boom of the 1920s. The new receiver provided 
access to the airwaves to the new group of would-be Willenborgs, the 
amateurs. They were primarily young, white, middle-class boys and 
men who built their own stations in their bedrooms, attics, or garages. 
Although they existed throughout the country, they were most prevalent 
in urban areas. They earned no money as operators and had no particular 


• 196 • 



Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


corporate or professional affiliation. For them, wireless became a hob- 
by — one that would shortly have national significance. 

The amateurs’ ingenuity in converting a motley assortment of elec- 
trical and metal castoffs into working radio sets was quite impressive. 
With performance analogous to that of an expensive detector now made 
available to them in the form of the inexpensive crystals, the amateurs 
were prepared to improvise the rest of the wireless set. They had to in 
the early days, before 1908, for very few companies sold equipment 
appropriate for home use. Also, one of the crucial components, the tuning 
coil, was not supposed to be available for sale because it was part of the 
patented Marconi system. As the boom continued, children’s books, 
wireless manuals, magazines, and even the Boy Scout manual offered 
diagrams and advice on radio construction. One author instructed: “You 
see how many things I’ve used that you can find about the house.” 17 

Boys also exchanged technical information with one another at 
school and over the air. They were especially interested in information 
on improved reception and accurate tuning. The amateur measured his 
success by how many different and faraway stations he could pick up. 
The basic tuning coil, based on variable inductance, consisted of a cylin- 
der wound with wire. Mounted around the wire were variable contacts 
called sliders, which could be moved to make a connection at any point 
along the coil, thus matching the inductance of the receiving station to 
that of the transmitting station. By moving the sliders back and forth, the 
amateur could listen to one station and exclude the others. Finding suit- 
able cylindrical objects was not always easy; some boys used broken 
baseball bats or old curtain rods for lack of anything else. Later, when 
Quaker Oats began packaging its oatmeal in cylindrical cardboard con- 
tainers, these tubes became the standard core for the tuning coil. 18 

In the hands of the amateurs, all sorts of technical recycling and 
adaptive reuse took place. Discarded photography plates were wrapped 
with foil and became condensers. The brass spheres from an old bedstead 
were transformed into a spark gap, and were connected to an ordinary 
automobile ignition coil-cum-transmitter. Model T ignition coils were 
favorites. One amateur described how he made his own rotary spark gap 
from an electric fan. Another recalled that he “improvised a loudspeaker 
by rolling a newspaper in the form of a tapered cone and filled the room 
with the Arlington time signals. Everyone in the house gravely set their 
watches at noon each day by this means.” Another inventor’s apparatus 
was “constructed ingeniously out of old cans, umbrella ribs, discarded 
bottles, and various other articles.” Amateurs used these umbrella ribs as 
well as copper or silicon bronze wire to erect inexpensive and relatively 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


good aerials. Some amateurs, dissatisfied with the limited power that 
batteries provided, stole their power from the electric companies by 
tapping into outside electrical lines. 19 The one component that was too 
complicated for most amateurs to duplicate, and too expensive to buy, 
was the headphone set. Consequently, telephones began vanishing from 
public booths across America as the amateurs lifted the phones for their 
own stations. 20 Thus, the amateurs did not just accept and use this new 
technology; they adopted it as their own. They experimented with it, 
modified it, and sought to extend its range and performance. 

The size of this burgeoning wireless network is hard to gauge. Esti- 
mates vary, but Clinton De Soto, in his history of amateur radio, asserts 
that “it was the amateur who dominated the air.” 21 In 1911, Electrical 
World reported: “The number of wireless plants erected purely for 
amusement and without even the intention of serious experimenting is 
very large. One can scarcely go through a village without seeing evi- 
dence of this kind of activity, and around any of our large cities med- 
dlesome antennae can be counted by the score.” An operator for United 
Wireless wrote that one Boston manufacturer alone was selling thirty 
complete sets every month. The New York Times estimated in 1912 that 
America had several hundred thousand active amateur operators. 22 

Increasingly, magazines, newspapers, and popular fiction celebrated 
the wireless dabbling of these young men. Francis A. Collins, in his 
children’s book The Wireless Man, wrote: “On every fair night after 
dinner-time and when, let us hope, the lessons for the next day have been 
prepared, the entire country becomes a vast w'hispering gallery.” 23 In an 



Two early crystal detectors. The contact point could be adjusted or 
changed to find the most receptive spot on the crystal. 


Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


article he wrote for St. Nicholas titled “An Evening at a Wireless Sta- 
tion,” Collins changed his metaphor without sacrificing vividness or 
drama: “Imagine a gigantic spider’s web with innumerable threads radi- 
ating from New York more than a thousand miles over land and sea in all 
directions. In his station . . . our operator may be compared to the spider, 
sleepless, vigilant, ever watching for the faintest tremor from the farthest 
corner of his invisible fabric.” 24 These operators, “thousands of miles 
apart,” wrote Collins, “talk and joke with one another as though they 
were in the same room.” 25 In Tom Swift and His Wireless Message, Tom 
saved himself and his companions who were shipwrecked on a volcanic 
island by devising a wireless set and sending for help: “Would help 
come? If so, from where? And if so, would it be in time? These are the 
questions that the castaways asked themselves. As for Tom, he sat at the 
key clicking away, while, overhead, from the wires fastened to the dead 
tree, flashed out the messages.” Finally, “from somewhere in the great 
void,” a reply came back and all were rescued. 26 Short stories with titles 
such as “In Marconiland,” “Wooed by Wireless,” and “Sparks” appeared 
in popular magazines. 27 Their young male protagonists saved property 
and lives and won the love of a previously unattainable and beautiful 
young woman, all through their skill with wireless. They also got some 
financial reward and a better job. It was through his mastery of this 
technology that the protagonist’s true heroic qualities of courage, self- 
lessness, and chivalry were ultimately revealed, while he simul- 
taneously proved himself to be an invaluable organization man. 

The most avid promoter of the hobby was Hugo Gemsback, most 
frequently referred to as the father of science fiction. Gernsback, an 
immigrant from Luxembourg who came to the United States in 1904 to 
market a dry battery he had invented, was also a wireless enthusiast. 28 
By 1906 he had opened “that great emporium of the amateur world, the 
Electro-Importing Company” on Fulton Street in New York; this shop 
was probably the first in the United States to sell wireless apparatus 
appropriate for home use directly to the public. 29 To promote both the 
hobby and his sales, Gernsback began publishing the magazine Modem 
Electrics in 1908. The magazine contained technical information and 
wireless boosterism. Gemsback also wrote letters to newspapers such as 
the New York Times praising “the ambition and really great inventive 
genius of American boys.” He advised parents to encourage the hobby: 
“This new art does much toward keeping the boy at home, where other 
diversions usually, sooner or later, lead him to questionable resorts; and 
for this reason well-informed parents are only too willing to allow their 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


sons to become interested in wireless.” 30 How could the middle-class 
parent, concerned about pool halls or nickelodeons, resist such an 
argument? 

Such celebrations of the boy wireless operator were powerfully 
reinforced whenever professional operators became heroes. On January 
23, 1909, a dramatic and highly publicized accident emphasized the 
importance of wireless at sea. The White Star liner Republic, which was 
taking vacationing well-to-do Americans to the Mediterranean, was 
cruising in a thick fog twenty-six miles southeast of the Nantucket light- 
ship when it was rammed by the Italian Lloyds ship the Florida, which 
was bringing hundreds of Italian immigrants to New York. The Re- 
public's engine room was pierced and immediately filled with water. 31 
Two people whose sleeping berths were at the point of collision were 
killed instantly. Others were injured. The two ships were carrying, be- 
tween them, more than twelve hundred passengers. The Republic began 
to sink and the crews from both ships started transferring the Republic 
passengers to the Florida. It was not clear whether the Italian ship, 
which was half the size of the Republic and had a severely damaged bow, 
would be able to reach port with such a heavy load. There was panic and 
chaos on both ships. But “then came the wonder of modern knowledge,” 
reported Harper’s Weekly: “Out of the heart of the fog, far and wide, to 
all points of the compass, Captain Sealby flashed by wireless telegraphy 
word of the peril and requests for assistance — a general ambulance call 
of the deep sea.” Several ships responded; they “turned in their tracks 
and headed for the far-off voice that summoned them!” “What a wonder- 
tale it is,” continued the Harper’s editorial, “and how deeply moving — 
the cry for help thrown out into the air from a mast-tip, and caught, a 
hundred miles and more away. ... It is a new story; there was never 
one quite like it before.” 32 The Baltic reached the Republic and Florida 
first and took on all the survivors from both ships. The Republic sank, and 
the other two ships returned to New York. The “marvels of wireless 
telegraphy” were front-page news for four straight days, dominating the 
first three pages of the New York Times, which called the accident “the 
greatest shipwreck in years.” 33 Wireless, announced Harper’s, “has rob- 
bed accident by sea of half its terrors. No longer need the passengers of a 
wrecked ship scan the horizon hopelessly while the sea pours into the 
hold and, inch by inch, Death gains his footing. For an invisible network 
of ethereal communications unites ship to ship.” 34 

But the real hero of the hour was a “youngster of twenty-six who 
became famous in a day,” the Republic’s wireless operator, Jack Binns. 
The Florida, which was carrying poor Italian immigrants who were 


• 200 • 






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which specialized in amateur wireless apparatus. 


fleeing the recent disastrous earthquake in Sicily, was not equipped with 
wireless apparatus, so the duty of calling for help fell solely on Binns’s 
shoulders. “With the wall of his metal cabin splintered and shattered by 
the knife-bow of the Italian liner,” reported Putnam’s, “Binns stuck to his 
instrument all through the dreary day, sending, sending, sending the 
hurry call of the sea — CQD! CQD!” When the Republic’s engine room 
flooded and the ship’s power went off, Binns had to shift to reserve 
storage batteries for transmitting, and this cut the radius of his messages 
by one-half. Yet, he still “sat at the key for many hours without respite, 
till help arrived .” 35 He communicated primarily with H. G. Tattersall, the 
operator on the Baltic, who sat at his key for fifty-two hours until he 


■ 201 • 


INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


collapsed. In the end, Binns was “drenched and hungry,” “exposed to the 
weather, his hands so stiff from the cold that it was with difficulty that he 
could hold the key of his instrument .” 36 

By the time he reached New York, Binns was lionized. Reporters 
hounded him for interviews; crowds followed and cheered him from the 
moment he set foot on dry land. Congressmen made speeches urging that 
he be immortalized . 37 Managers of music halls and museums “vainly 
tempt[ed] him to go on the stage and pose .” 38 One vaudeville chain 
offered him one thousand dollars a week for ten weeks to appear on its 
billing . 39 Two days after Binns returned to New York, his friends drag- 
ged him onto the stage of the Hippodrome, where he was forced to make 
a speech and was then swarmed over by all the chorus girls, who tried to 
hug and kiss him. 

Binns, like Marconi ten years earlier, was the perfect media hero. He 
fit perfectly the literary conventions and cultural expectations of his 
times. He was a real-life Tom Swift. It was through his technical mastery 
that he had proved himself a man. He had been selfless and vigilant, 
impervious to the threat of failure or the risks of danger. Physical combat 
had not been important; physical endurance had been critical. He was 
“young, boyish, quite immature in appearance, but possessed . . . iron 
nerve and dauntless resolution .” 40 And he was modest, even self-effac- 
ing. He refused to admit “that he did any more than any of his fellow- 
operators would have done in like circumstances .” 41 Linder a large por- 
trait of him in Harper’s Weekly appeared the caption “Why, I didn’t do 
anything .” 42 He even refused the many offers to benefit financially from 
his newfound celebrity, which prompted one New York Times reader to 
write, “Good for you, Jack Binns! May your example be followed by 
future newspaper ‘heroes.’ ” 43 After the flood of attention, Putnam’s 
reported that Binns confided to a friend, “I can’t stand any more of this. I 
never want to see my own picture again .” 44 By refusing “to become an 
object of gaping and vulgar curiosity,” editorialized the New York Times, 
Binns showed “the delicacy and dignity which not a few real heroes 
have lacked .” 45 “The true test of a hero,” lectured Putnam’s, “is the 
manner in which he takes his ovation .” 46 Binns’s aw-shucks approach 
served to fan the embers he hoped to douse. 

Several publications used the incident to romanticize the work of all 
wireless operators. They noted that many amateurs went on to become 
professional operators, and that the variety and excitement to be found in 
wireless work made the job especially attractive to youth. These oper- 
ators were reportedly educated men who had “technical college train- 
ing” and came from a “superior class.” On board ship, the operator was 


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Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


“an important personage” who ranked as an officer and took his orders 
directly from the captain. But what operators liked best was “the sensa- 
tion of sitting in a quiet cabin, with untold ohms of power beneath their 
fingers.” 47 According to a Harper’s reporter, all the operators were he- 
roes: “Going around among them and hearing them talk of their work 
convinces one of the incalculable service they render daily to modern 
navigation. And it is a service that is rendered with an admirable esprit 
de corps.” 48 It was repeatedly said that the operators formed a 
brotherhood. 

Joining such a fraternity of tough, independent men who were al- 
ways potentially at the edge of danger possessed no small portion of 
romantic allure. One could become part of the brotherhood without 
actually going to sea; taking to the air was sufficient stimulation for many. 
For, even though a young man might be secure in the comfort of his own 
home, his life did become more exciting through radio. The amateurs 
came to feel that their lives were intertwined with truly significant 
events, as they overheard messages about shipwrecks or political devel- 
opments and transmitted these messages to others. As one amateur re- 
called, “We were undoubtedly romantic about ourselves, possessors of 
strange new secrets that enabled us to send and receive messages with- 
out wires.” 49 Amateurs who heard Jack Binns’s distress signals became 
celebrities by association. One remembered: “The few boys in school in 
the area who claimed to have received the distress call were local heroes 
for a time, and they made a number of converts to the radio amateur 
hobby among the more technically minded youngsters.” 50 Hearing any 
news first, the night before other Americans would read it in the news- 
papers, imbued the amateur with an aura of privilege, of being “in the 
know.” As Francis A. Collins wrote in The Wireless Man, “Over and over 
again it has happened that an exciting piece of news has been read by this 
great audience of wireless boys, long before the country has heard the 
news from the papers. ... A wide-awake amateur often finds himself 
independent of such slow-going methods of spreading the news as news- 
papers or even bulletin boards.” 51 Many amateurs learned of the out- 
break of World War 1 from the Marconi Cape Cod station hours before the 
newspapers announced the story. 52 The amateurs were tapping point- 
to-point messages meant only for certain ears, not broadcasts intended 
for everyone. They could feel part of an inner circle of informed people 
because they heard the news as it happened. 

As important as being privy to such spectacular but rare transmis- 
sions was the novelty of contacting other people, strangers, through 
space. One operator claimed that amateurs using only “a wire strung up 


■ 203 • 




INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 



Publicity photograph of Jack Binns, hero of the Republic disaster. 


like a clothesline between trees” were able to pick up “many long- 
distance messages.” He added, “I know one boy who catches messages 
sent out from Panama .” 53 Although many operators hoped to hear dots 
and dashes coming from “thousands of miles away,” making contact over 
a distance as short as ten or fifteen miles was reportedly a “thrilling 
experience .” 54 In a culture that was becoming more urbanized, and 
whose social networks were becoming increasingly fragmented, many 


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Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


strangers became friends through wireless. The amateurs loved the con- 
tact with invisible others in a realm where one was faceless and yet 
known at the same time. The fraternity that emerged possessed the 
fellowship felt among pioneers. These young men were exploring and 
comparing their findings on a relatively uncharted and mysterious ter- 
ritory. As one amateur explained, “The eagerness and frankness in dis- 
tributing the results of our findings undoubtedly molded the form of 
fellowship which is such a striking quality of the amateurs.” 55 Yet the 
fraternity was also exclusive. Working-class boys with neither the time 
nor the money to tinker with wireless could not participate as easily. 
Neither could girls or young women, for whom technical tinkering was 
considered a distinctly inappropriate pastime and technical mastery a 
distinctly unacceptable goal. This fraternity, whether self-consciously or 
accidently, brought together roughly similar men in a region uninhabited 
by those so different from them: women, immigrants, blacks, and boys 
ignorant about electrical technology. That the amateurs engaged in con- 
tests of strength and speed with one another did not undercut the mutu- 
ality of the enterprise; in fact, the contests simply strengthened the bond. 

A revolutionary social phenomenon was emerging. A large radio 
audience was taking shape whose attitude and involvement were unlike 
those of other, traditionally passive, audiences. Collins summarized the 
development in The Wireless Man: “An audience of a hundred thousand 
boys all over the United States may be addressed almost every evening 
by wireless telegraph. Beyond doubt this is the largest audience in the 
world. No football or baseball crowd, no convention or conference, 
compares with it in size, nor gives closer attention to the business at 
hand.” 56 This was an active, committed, and participatory audience. Out 
of the camaraderie of the amateurs emerged more formal fraternities, the 
wireless clubs, which were organized all over America. One of the first 
of such clubs, the Junior Wireless Club, Ltd., was formed in January 
1909, just after the Republic disaster. It began in New Jersey with only 
five members; elected as president was eleven-year-old W.E.D. Stokes, 
Jr. In the same year Hugo Gernsback started the Wireless Association of 
America, which by 1910, Gernsback claimed, had ten thousand mem- 
bers. The Children’s Museum, under the direction of the Brooklyn In- 
stitute of Arts and Sciences, erected its own wireless plant so youngsters 
could investigate wireless, learn how to build their own sets, and meet 
other young operators. Many high schools established wireless clubs to 
promote the hobby. 57 By 1912, the New York Times estimated that 122 
wireless clubs existed in America. 58 Most of the club meetings took place 
“in the air,” on a prearranged wavelength. The chairman called the 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


meeting to order by sending out his call letters, and the members signified 
their attendance by answering with their own. During these meetings, 
the amateurs usually shared technical problems and solutions, discussed 
technical advances, and drilled one another on transmission skills. A 
Chicago wireless club broadcast a program every evening, “as a matter 
of practice for amateur operators in receiving. The bulletin usually con- 
sisted of an article of some electrical or telegraphic interest . . . [and] 
sometimes the program was varied by sending passages in foreign lan- 
guages, to quicken the receiving ears of the amateur operators.” 59 

Gradually, an informal wireless network was established as the 
different clubs relayed messages for one another to points too far to reach 
with most amateur sets. One historian has noted: “Message handling — 
for pleasure, for friends, in time of emergency — was rapidly becoming 
the predominant theme in amateur radio.” In March of 1913, a severe 
windstorm in the Midwest blew down the telegraph and telephone 
lines, but local amateurs were able to maintain the region’s communica- 
tion by relaying messages in and out of the area. Such impromptu public 
service gestures led some amateurs to advocate better organized inter- 
communication among operators. One radio enthusiast, the inventor 
Hiram Percy Maxim, believed that the amateurs needed a national orga- 
nization to establish a formal relay system or network to serve all ama- 
teurs. Through his Hartford Radio Club, he contacted amateurs in March 
1914, inviting them to join a league and to convert their stations into 
official relay stations. The name of his organization was the American 
Radio Relay League (ARRL). The response to his invitations was so 
enthusiastic that within four months the league boasted two hundred 
official relay stations across the United States. 60 Thus, in 1914, there 
existed in America a grass-roots, coast-to-coast communications net- 
work. When ARRL was formed, Popular Mechanics proclaimed “the 
beginning of a new epoch in the interchange of information and the 
transmission of messages.” Wireless telegraphy had “made it possible for 
the private citizen to communicate across great distances without the aid 
of either the government or a corporation.” 61 

For the first time in America, men were being invisibly bound to- 
gether by and in the airwaves, not by necessity, but for fun, to learn from 
and to establish contact with others. Those involved in the new hobby 
saw larger-than-life reflections of themselves in popular books, maga- 
zines, and newspapers. We cannot tell whether popular culture helped 
increase participation, but we do know, from the reminiscences of ama- 
teurs operating at the time, that popular culture articulated the hopes and 
dreams invested in wireless. Technology gave the amateurs the means to 


■ 206 • 



Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


communicate without wires. Popular culture sustained their visions of 
being on the cutting edge of technological progress and of being the kind 
of men truly prepared for modem society. 


THE INCREASED PRESENCE of amateurs in the airwaves led to a 
struggle for control of the ether, a struggle that pitted the amateurs 
against the U.S. Navy. The nature of this struggle was only hinted at in 
the stories about Walter Willenborg. Willenborg’s conquest of the Atlan- 
tic Highlands operator, who was forced to stop trasmitting until Willen- 
borg w r as good and ready to let him proceed, was protrayed by the New 
York Times reporter as amusing and even enviable ethereal jousting. It 
was boyish prankishness, and boys, after all, will be boys. As long as the 
boy wireless heroes were cast in the mold of fictional characters like 
Frank Merriwell and Tom Swift, a few good-natured pranks could do no 
harm. However, the sort of deliberate interference that Willenborg prac- 
ticed began to get out of control, and to the military, in particular, it 
ceased to be in any way innocent or amusing. Not all amateurs, it turned 
out, were selfless heroes like Jack Binns. 

It is important to remember that by 1910, the amateurs surpassed 
both the U.S. Navy and United Wireless in numbers and, often, in quality 
of apparatus. Between 1906 and 1910, the navy had installed wireless 
on many of its ships, and while the invention was still not well integrated 
into naval operations, it was being used more frequently. There were 
hundreds of high-power amateur stations, however; navy and commer- 
cial stations comprised only 15 or 20 percent of the total. 62 Many home- 
made stations could transmit only up to fifteen miles and pick up mes- 
sages from forty miles away, but some commercially produced 
apparatus, which cost thirty dollars or less, was guaranteed to receive 
and send messages up to three hundred or four hundred miles. 63 In 
addition to this power, the amateurs, who were able to ignore patents, 
also had tuning. As one historian has noted, “The fact that amateurs had 
tuners prior to 1910 — even though they were nothing more than long 
coils of wire with a sliding contact — lent them a tremendous advantage 
over the inadequately equipped stations of United Wireless and the U.S. 
Navy, which used obsolete untuned, or at best direct-coupled equipment 
for several years thereafter.” 64 

The spectrum became more crowded as too many enthusiasts, many 
of them beginners, clogged the air with all sorts of transmissions. They 
“gossip about everything under the sun,” reported one operator. “They 
ask each other for the baseball or football scores, make appointments to 


■ 207 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


meet the next day, compare their lessons. And they quarrel and talk back 
and forth by wireless in regular boy-fashion.” 65 Amateurs spoke with 
one another and with willing commercial operators. The United oper- 
ators aboard the coastal ships worked long, uneventful hours, and they 
were more than happy to have the amateurs keep them company. As one 
amateur recalled (painting an image contrary to the glamorous one of 
Binns and his compatriots), “The operators on those ships put in bore- 
some hours. . . . People were not great users of wireless ship-to-shore 
messages as they are today. . . . There was absolutely no limit to the 
conversation service we would get from the ships.” 66 Francis Hart, a 
wireless operator in New York City from 1907 to 1911, described the 
congestion in his logbook: “The different kids around here raise an awful 
noise, all try to talk at once, call when anybody is in and never use any 
sense, half can’t read 4 words a minute and sit calling everybody within 
20 miles and can’t hear 800 feet from another station.” He commented on 
one amateur’s conversations: “FH is a very good reader, but he tries to 
say too much at one time, then the poor reader makes him repeat it and 
they keep that blooming business up for hours.” 67 While this sort of 
interference increased, so did “malicious” interference, which began to 
give the amateurs as a group a bad reputation. 

Some amateurs deliberately sent false or obscene messages, es- 
pecially to the navy. The temptation to indulge in such practical joking 
was enhanced by the fact that detection was virtually impossible. Ama- 
teurs would pretend to be military officials or commercial operators, and 
they dispatched ships on all sorts of fabricated missions. Navy operators 
would receive emergency messages about a ship that was sinking off the 
coast . After hours of searching in vain, the navy would hear the truth : the 
“foundering” ship had just arrived safely in port. In January 1910, ap- 
proaching the Nantucket lightship, the steamliner Bremen asked for a 
report on weather conditions and location. The New York Times gave 
this account of what ensued: “She was answered, and was much 
shocked and surprised to find that the reckoning as computed by her 
navigator was apparently in error. Information that was untrue was also 
given regarding weather conditions. On reaching New York the matter 
was looked into, and it was discovered that the lightship had been sunk a 
week prior to the sending of the messages, and the work was that of 
amateurs.” Navy operators at the Newport Naval Yard complained that 
amateurs sent them profane messages. Electrical World reported: “At- 
tempts to report the recent naval experiments in Chesapeake Bay by 
wireless met all kinds of trouble from the omnipresent amateur, with his 
often crude, but sometimes perniciously effective, sending apparatus.” 


■ 208 • 



Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


The Outlook warned: “The efficiency of a number of the coastal stations 
of the Navy has been cut in half because of the presence of dozens of small 
amateur stations. Boston is the head of some five hundred amateur oper- 
ators, a number of whom can put the Charlestown Navy Yard com- 
pletely out of commission as regards the receiving of messages.” 68 

Some amateurs charged that commercial operators helped create the 
malicious interference and were taking advantage of the amateurs’ in- 
creasingly bad press. Electrical World repeated the claim: “Much of the 
present day trouble arising from interference is attributable less to the 
activities of amateur operators than to the studied attempts of certain of 
the operating companies to interrupt the continuity of messages being 
sent by [their] rivals.” 69 The chief electrician of the New York Navy Yard 
maintained that the signals from some commercial stations were so loud 
that if the receiver was “anyway near on their tune the telephone [could] 
be laid on the table and the sound heard at any distance in the room away 
from them.” 70 Hart’s logbook for 1909 contains many complaints about 
interference by Marconi operators. A Marconi operator aboard the St. 
Louis, Hart recorded, had been “breaking everybody for the last three 
nights, while lying at dock sending ‘Vs’ and general nonsense which is 
not uncommonly done by the Marconi people in the harbor.” Hart re- 
sented being treated in that “absolutely pigheaded English way.” He was 
especially irritated by the Marconi interference, because the Marconi 
Company, he wrote, already had a monopoly. 71 

The situation was untenable: too many people wanted access to the 
airwaves at the same time, and there were no guidelines for establishing 
priority. The commercial wireless companies did not take this contest 
into the public arena; interfering with one another was part of business, 
and they could often tune out or overpower the amateurs. When tech- 
nical might failed, gentlemen’s agreements prevailed. For example, the 
one hundred members of a wireless club in Chicago worked out an air- 
sharing agreement with the local commercial operators which was de- 
signed to reduce interference for both groups. 72 For the private com- 
panies, especially Marconi, public arguments over interference and con- 
gestion were undesirable because they suggested that wireless was still 
unreliable and prompted mention of regulation. The amateurs resented 
getting blamed for commercial operators’ mischief, but their argument 
was basically not with the private wireless companies. Rather, as the 
battle lines over ethereal right of way became more clearly drawn, the 
amateurs began to defend themselves against a public campaign waged 
by the U.S. Navy. 

Military officials began lobbying in Washington for stricter regula- 


■ 209 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


tion of or elimination of the amateur. Their justification for such suppres- 
sion was difficult to dispute: safety at sea and national security. In its 
cover story on the U.S. revenue cutter Gresham, “life-saver of the rocky 
New England coast,” Scientific American echoed the military position 
that the ship “depends on her wireless apparatus to keep informed of the 
location of wrecks, and her urgent dispatches have at times been delayed 
for hours by the working of amateur stations.” Naval operators asserted 
that because they transmitted important official messages, they should 
have priority and should not be interfered with by children. A New York 
City naval operator considered having to yield the airwaves to young- 
sters when he was trying to conduct government business preposterous. 
He was prevented from transmitting one evening while “a couple of kids 
in New Jersey compared the results of their arithmetic lessons.” 73 The 
navy now had another chance to try to take over the operation of Amer- 
ica’s wireless stations. Amateur meddling in “official government trans- 
missions,” which included emergency messages, provided an excellent 
argument for military control. The navy continued issuing statements 
about the grave danger posed by the amateurs, and cited many instances 
of unpatriotic interference. The Navy Department’s 1909 Annual Report 
noted the increased numbers of “seemingly semi-intelligent and wholly 
irresponsible operators” who “at any time through carelessness or stu- 
pidity may render hopeless the case of a shipwreck.” The only solution, 
the navy argued, was for “laws governing the conduct of all wireless 
stations” to be passed. 74 

The anonymity made possible by wireless had a leveling effect on 
the status and power of naval officials: in the airwaves, rank was irrele- 
vant; only technical strength mattered. The wireless amateurs expressed 
traditional American delight in flouting authority, and their target was 
irresistible. If you wanted to challenge authority and show how tough, 
how manly, how unafraid, you were, who better to take on than the 
new navy? 

The amateurs fought the navy’s efforts to restrict their activity. They 
argued with navy operators in the air and tried to embarrass the navy in 
the press. The Outlook reported that during what naval operators claim- 
ed was an emergency situation, amateurs refused to clear the air, “some 
of the amateurs even arguing with the Navy men over the ownership of 
the ether.” In another instance, a Boston amateur, “told by a naval oper- 
ator to ‘butt out’ made the following classic remark: ‘Say, you navy 
people think you own the ether. Who ever heard of the navy anyway? 
Beat it, you, beat it.’ ” 75 

Many amateurs were justifiably rankled by the navy’s charges. The 


• 210 • 



Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


press agreed that most amateurs were polite and considerate and did not 
transmit false or obscene messages. Many amateurs had, in fact, helped to 
save lives or relay critical messages, only to be blamed for interfering. 
The May 1912 issue of Electrician and Mechanic recounted one such 
incident, in which the naval ship Terry transmitted distress signals to the 
New York area: “The first news that the Brooklyn Navy Yard had of the 
Terry’s distress was picked up by an amateur in Bayonne, New Jersey, 
and relayed to the government operator.” Rather than appear incompe- 
tent because he had failed to pick up the Terry’s initial call himself, the 
naval operator blamed the local amateurs for interfering. 76 A wireless 
amateur wrote to Scientific American to cite another instance in which 
amateur aid would have been crucial: “While experimenting with my 
receiving set at a point on Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, I once heard a 
ship call every naval and commercial station from . . . Fire Island, New 
York to Boston, for an hour, without getting a reply. Suppose this had 
been an urgent distress call? That ship would have gone down with the 
call unanswered unless I or some other ‘meddler’ had given the alarm.” 77 

The amateurs issued charges of their own. They claimed that the 
navy relied on antiquated apparatus and that most naval operators were 
incompetent. The amateurs believed that they were becoming 
scapegoats for the navy’s internal problems. To illustrate that the navy 
was slow to update its equipment, amateur operators made comparisons 
between the performance of amateur and commercial apparatus and that 
of the navy equipment. Demanded one amateur, “Why can the majority 
of amateurs in Washington, D.C. pick up messages from longer distances 
than the naval station, which is equipped with an aerial five to ten times 
larger than theirs? . . . Why do the majority of amateurs here get long 
distance signals louder than the government station?” 78 The answer, the 
amateurs charged, was that the navy’s equipment consisted of “non- 
receivers” — outdated transmitters of insufficient power — and that naval 
apparatus had only the crudest form of tuning. 

The amateurs were also quick to point out that navy operators were 
amateurs themselves, who were often very slow and were unfamiliar 
with both the wireless code and the apparatus. While many of the ama- 
teurs had been transmitting as well as tinkering with their own apparat- 
us for years, and then had trained for five years to become first-class 
commercial operators, naval operators only went through a two-month 
training course before manning a wireless station. (Prior to 1912, the 
training period for naval operators was often less than two months.) 79 
John Purssell, a Washington, D.C., amateur, sent his account of a navy 
operator’s ineptitude to Scientific American. One evening Purssell was 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


listening to communication between Baltimore and the Washington 
Navy Yard. Purssell had received Baltimore’s message without any 
difficulty. 

After some time the navy operator said “Please go ahead a little slow- 
er,” and Baltimore thereupon repeated the message slowly in perfect 
Continental. The navy yard then got part of it, but asked him to repeat a 
portion of the middle. This time the navy operator got a word or two 
more, but had to have the message four times before he got it all. . . . 

On another occasion the navy operator at Norfolk, after trying several 
times to get a message through to Washington at a rate of about five 
words per minute, gave up in disgust, and said: “For the love of Mike, 
get an operator .” 80 

Purssell alleged that the naval stations operated at an average speed of 
twelve words a minute, a rate Marconi had established at the turn of the 
century. Another Scientific American reader wrote to the editor to cor- 
roborate the claim that naval operators used the amateurs as scapegoats: 
“Whenever an operator in one of the government stations has any diffi- 
culty with his apparatus, or misses out on a message through his own 
inability, a very simple and efficient excuse is, ‘Couldn’t get a thing 
through the amateurs.’ ” 81 

Finally, the amateurs, who often eavesdropped on “official” mes- 
sages, challenged the navy’s assertion that it should have automatic pri- 
ority in the air. The amateurs charged that many of the government’s 
messages were no more urgent or weighty than anyone else’s. Francis 
Clay, NESCO’s attorney, supported this charge with an example of his 
own. His clients were trying to transmit crucial information concerning 
an important lawsuit involving a considerable sum of money. When the 
operator sought to send the message, “he was held up and informed that 
the League Island Navy Yard was using the air in sending a message and 
that it had priority. It was afterward learned that the wife of an officer 
stationed at the League Island Navy Yard, who had gone downtown to 
do some shopping, had a message sent asking for her Mackintosh and 
rubbers. She feared that she would get wet, as a rainstorm was 
coming.” 82 

The amateurs received some support in their complaints, which 
were not without merit. The wireless companies, which for years had 
been complaining about the ineptitude of naval operators, echoed the 
amateurs’ criticisms. Since 1904, NESCO had been urging the navy to 
train its operators properly so they would stop damaging the apparatus 
and would send messages coherently to other operators. And, while the 


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Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


press did not condone the amateurs’ mischief, it did not consider the navy 
to be blameless. Electrical World described, for example, how “some 
high school boys . . . threw the Newport naval wireless station into a 
succession of fits with an old Morse key, a broken incandescent lamp and 
a few batteries.” These youngsters, continued the journal, “gave inciden- 
tally a valuable demonstration of the need of improvement, to which we 
trust the Navy Department will give due heed. If such rudimentary 
equipment accomplished so considerable a disturbance, what would 
happen if a hostile fleet went deliberately to work with powerful and 
skillfully devised apparatus? . . . The Navy system as now used could be 
hopelessly tangled up, without going to much trouble.” 83 

Corroboration of these criticisms came from within the navy itself. 
In 1911 and early 1912, Lieutenant Stanford C. Hooper was assigned to 
observe the use of wireless during naval target practice and submit a 
report to the Navy Department. Hooper had many criticisms of the 
navy’s failure to integrate wireless into its strategic operations, and the 
operators were not spared: “About one-third of the operators are not 
operators and delay the general business about one-half,” reported 
Hooper. “The speedier operators often ‘burn it in’ a little too hard just to 
show off, now and then, causing needless repetition.” He urged that the 
operators master the Continental code and increase their transmission 
speed from their current ten to eighteen words per minute, noting that 
the navy’s standard was about half that of commercial operations. Hoop- 
er blamed this low standard on insufficient training, lenient examina- 
tions, slowness in weeding out inept operators, and the great disparity 
between naval and commercial operators’ salaries. Hooper, turning the 
navy’s complaints back on the navy, warned the department: “The wire- 
less is running away from us in certain regards. Three times during the 
past week have 1 heard the commercial stations legitimately complaining 
about the fleet’s interference.” 84 Hooper could not believe that the navy 
had not yet adopted cipher, especially given the lack of secrecy in wire- 
less transmissions and the ability of any youngster to send messages 
claiming he was an admiral. He also acknowledged that the national 
security argument, which claimed that naval messages should have pri- 
ority because they were official messages, was a fig leaf covering naval 
misuse of the invention. Hooper later recalled that officers exerted little 
control over wireless and, thus, that each operator was free “to send 
whatever he pleased. . . . There were more personal than official mes- 
sages and more operator conversation than messages.” 85 

The amateurs could not accept the navy suddenly stepping in and 
claiming the airwaves for itself in the name of national security when the 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


navy had done little to ensure that wireless would help preserve that 
security. According to the amateurs, several intermediate steps, such as 
adopting cipher, improving the quality and power of the apparatus, train- 
ing the operators, and developing tuning, should be taken by the navy 
before it asked for regulatory measures to ban individuals from the air. 
But the navy did not base its claim on its contributions to or investments 
in wireless. Rather, the navy argued for priority on the basis of its as- 
signed role as a defender of American society. The amateurs, on the other 
hand, asserted that they had as much, if not more, right to explore the 
ether because they had worked and experimented to earn that right. The 
ether was a national resource, they argued, a newly discovered environ- 
ment, and the amateurs considered that their enthusiasm and technical 
spadework entitled them to a sizable portion of the territory. Much as 
nineteenth-century pioneers had obtained squatters’ rights by cultivating 
the property on which they settled, the amateurs had developed a pro- 
prietary attitude toward the airwaves they had been working in for the 
past five years. There were a few outlaws in the group, but their alleged 
violations should not mean, argued the amateurs, that all individual 
operators were to be excluded by the government. 


■ ■ ■ 

THE EMERGENCE OF this grass-roots network of boys and young men 
marks the introduction of yet another way of using and thinking about 
wireless and the ether which contributed to the social construction of 
broadcasting. To the amateurs, the ether was neither the rightful 
province of the military nor a resource a private firm could appropriate 
and monopolize. The ether was, instead, an exciting new frontier in 
which men and boys could congregate, compete, test their mettle, and be 
privy to a range of new information. Social order and social control were 
defied. In this realm the individual voice did not have to defer to the 
authority of business or the state. This realm, argued the amateurs, did 
not belong to hierarchical bureaucracies: it belonged to “the people.” 
Thinking about the ether in this way, and acting on such ideas on a daily 
basis, was a critical step in the transformation of wireless into radio 
broadcasting. 

As their battle with the navy intensified between 1910 and 1912, 
the amateurs and their spokesmen relied increasingly on democratic rhet- 
oric that described the air as being free and the property of the people, for 
whom the amateurs tried to suggest they were the proper surrogates. 
But the amateurs ignored the fact that the spectrum was a common 
property resource with boundaries both around and within it. As over- 


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Popular Culture and Populist Technology 


population and overuse of this resource intensified, its value to all users 
diminished, but at the time, no standards existed for allocating property 
rights in the “folds of the night.” The enthusiasm with which legions of 
amateurs took to the air alerted some in the government to the fact that 
such standards would have to be established soon. The nation would 
have to come to terms with the question “Who owns the airwaves?” 


215 


CHAPTER SEVEN 


THE TITANIC DISASTER AND THE FIRST 
RADIO REGULATION 

1910-1912 


BY 1910, WIRELESS had been a part of America’s cultural and economic 
landscape for a decade. Its use had not, as yet, been regulated in any way. 
Unlike the European nations, which had agreed in 1903 and 1906 to 
endorse international treaties regarding wireless communications, the 
United States had not considered such regulation pressing. For six years, 
from 1904 to 1910, the wireless companies and the amateurs successful- 
ly lobbied against wireless regulation in America. These groups’ objec- 
tions to the treaty of the 1906 International Wireless Conference— that it 
was premature, technically naive, and restrictive; that it was overly 
generous to the Germans and exploitative of American inventors; and 
that it transformed wireless into an instrument of warfare — persuaded 
congressmen to vote against any wireless legislation that resembled the 
1906 treaty. But the power of these lobbying efforts should not be over- 
emphasized. That the regulation of wireless was a low legislative pri- 
ority is an understatement: Congress was wrestling with antitrust legis- 
lation, child labor laws, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and a host of other 
major legislative controversies during the first decade of the century. All 
of these issues either had been instigated by books or magazine articles or 
had been accompanied by ongoing intense journalistic scrutiny. Many 
important laws were designed by well-organized and entrenched indus- 
tries seeking state intervention and support. By contrast, the wireless 
companies in America were small, disorganized, and fiercely com- 
petitive, and they had no common interests that regulation might pre- 
serve. Also, wireless had received attention in other contexts, but not as 
a regulatory issue of any import. Its importance as an item on the reg- 
ulatory agenda paled beside child labor or the meat-packing industry. 


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The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation 


Only when wireless was connected to many more lives in a much more 
critical way would it be a major item on that agenda. 

The fact that radio was still so technically and economically un- 
developed was also influential in forestalling congressional action. Scien- 
tists and academics continued to argue over wireless theory and practice; 
congressmen could hardly have felt comfortable trying to regulate a 
young science that was still so poorly understood. Henry Cabot Lodge 
noted when explaining his “grave doubts as to the wisdom” of ratifying 
the 1906 treaty, “Personally I confess 1 do not understand the questions 
involved and I certainly should not be willing to vote until I am fully 
informed.” 1 Most importantly, no precedents existed for bureaucratic 
management of such a method of communications. The telegraph, wire- 
less’s nearest technical relation, had remained in private hands in Amer- 
ica. Again, the American record was quite different from Europe’s. In 
Britain, France, and Germany, for example, telegraph systems were 
owned by the government; these countries had regulatory precedents to 
help them confront the regulation of wireless. The United States did not. 

At first, what most frequently prompted talk of regulating wireless 
were complaints about interference. The wireless companies continued 
to promise technical solutions to interference which would render reg- 
ulation superfluous. Inventors had finally stopped claiming that the 
number of available wavelengths was infinite; they now acknowledged 
that the spectrum was in fact a limited, finite resource. They asserted, 
however, that through technical advances, each user would soon be 
taking up less space in the spectrum. They claimed that new and refined 
transmitters, which emitted more defined, less damped wave trains, 
took up “narrower” bands, allowing room for more users in the air- 
waves. In 1909, the New York Times, envisioning a technical solution, 
asserted: “That the difficulty of interference, like that of confining each 
message to a straight line between the sending and receiving instru- 
ments, will finally be overcome nobody much doubts.” 2 Three years 
later, the paper claimed that regulation was already anachronistic be- 
cause, “as everybody knows, Mr. Marconi has devised a method of 
preventing ‘interference’ between different stations by suitable modifi- 
cations of the wave lengths.” 3 A congressman reading this statement 
might well have asked himself why he should enact legislation if a 
technical allocation of property rights in the ether was imminent. 

Legislators no doubt preferred to wait for the promised technical 
arbitration because they were faced with an issue that was extremely 
complicated and emotionally charged — so much so that it is still being 
debated today : What criteria should Americans use to assign and protect 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


property rights in the spectrum? The first intellectual leap required in 
addressing such a question was thinking about something that was invisi- 
ble, all pervasive, seamless, and still quite mysterious as property. This 
was not easy for most Americans to do. Americans understood all too 
well that tangible things — machines, raw materials, a piece of land — 
were property people vied for, bought and sold, and used to get still more 
property. But all of these could be seen, touched, and measured. The 
ether could not. In addition, there was considerable confusion about 
what, exactly, the ether was; many referred to it simply as the air. The air 
was an element Americans had traditionally associated with freedom, 
even transcendence. As Congressman Ernest W. Roberts of Massachu- 
setts put it, “We have been brought up with the idea that the air was 
absolutely free to everyone .” 4 How could something people thought 
was free and impossible to partition actually become property? 

Having made the leap to thinking about the ether as property, one 
confronted the next question: What kind of property? Exclusive, private 
property rights could not be established in this domain the way they had 
been in real estate, for the ether could not be broken up into discrete 
plots. It was intangible and could not be bought or sold in quite the same 
way. Rather, the ether, like the oceans or wilderness areas, was a re- 
source held in common in which all Americans potentially had an in- 
terest and in which walls or fences could not be built. This may seem 
quite obvious to us today, but coming to the realization that the ether was 
both a resource and one Americans had collective rights to was just as 
difficult as thinking of the ether as property at all. Some tried to resolve 
the dilemma by arguing that because everyone had a stake in the ether, 
no one person or group could be assigned overarching rights. Con- 
gressman Roberts maintained: “It has always been understood that a 
man owning real estate owned to the center of the earth and the heavens 
above and controlled everything above and below the surface of the 
piece of land he happened to own .” 5 Thus, if every property owner in 
America also owned a small tract of the spectrum, his property rights 
would be violated if the ether was used without his consent or contrary 
to his wishes or interests. 

Common property resources pose very special and vexing problems. 
Although the uses to which a common property resource is put can affect 
entire populations, and although many people believe that because it is a 
resource held in common, everyone has the right to exploit it, if a com- 
mon property resource is opened to all, its value is destroyed. As indi- 
viduals or institutions try to increase their enjoyment or use of the prop- 
erty, it becomes overpopulated, polluted in a variety of ways, and of less 


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The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation 


value to everyone. Freedom in the commons, so ideologically appealing, 
in fact “brings ruin to all.” 6 Given this reality, which was being power- 
fully demonstrated in America’s congested airwaves, the dilemma be- 
came clear. Who decides who will gain access to the commons, and what 
will the criteria for access be? These were not easy questions. 

In 1910 the groups vying for access to the ether were the military, 
the wireless companies, and the amateurs. The military, citing national 
security reasons, had a socially and politically valid claim, but bureau- 
cratic control was unpopular in the press and in Congress. The amateurs 
represented independent, individual access, which was sentimentally 
appealing but increasingly disruptive. Companies such as Marconi and 
United Wireless had commercial claims on the ether, some of them politi- 
cally persuasive and others less so. All of these interest groups had to be 
considered in any political solution to the interference and overpopula- 
tion problem. Congress was being asked with increased frequency be- 
tween 1908 and 1912 to limit admission to this common property re- 
source and to decide whose claim to the ether was valid, who had a right 
to transmit in a given area. Establishing such a hierarchy was an unprece- 
dented and unwelcome task, and Congress postponed acting until events 
forced its hand. 

The two radio-related issues confronting Congress were increasing 
interference and shipboard safety, and the two were intertwined. Inter- 
ference was not a problem one hundred miles out at sea, but in American 
ports the cacophony was frustrating and dangerous. Not all ships were 
wirelessly equipped, which meant that some passengers were un- 
protected in case of an accident. Yet to equip every ship was to increase 
ethereal population, and passengers would not necessarily be better 
served, because ships equipped with wireless would still be helpless if 
they could not get their distress calls through the clamor. Congressmen 
began introducing bills to codify the use of radio. From 1910 to 1912, 
wireless successes and failures at sea provided the catalysts for legislative 
action. 

The collision of the Republic and the Florida in January 1909, in 
which wireless played a central role in saving people’s lives, precipitated 
the first government regulation of wireless in America, the Wireless Ship 
Act of 1910. If Jack Binns had not had his wireless, more than twelve 
hundred people might have died. Wireless had been installed early on the 
large, luxurious ocean liners such as the White Star liner Republic which 
catered to the more privileged classes. At sea, wealth assured access to 
the resource. But ships less grand, those that transported immigrants or 
steerage passengers, like the Florida, usually had no wireless aboard. If 


• 219 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


Congress could not agree on how to assign rights in the spectrum, it could 
appreciate the merits of making wireless mandatory equipment aboard 
ship. Congress assumed its protector role, noting that the ingenuity of 
American inventors and America’s “open door ... to hundreds of thou- 
sands of immigrants” annually were compelling reasons “to take the lead 
in legislation.” 7 On February 8, 1909, President Roosevelt sent a message 
to Congress urging, in light of “recent events,” the quick passage of 
legislation making shipboard wireless mandatory. 8 By Feburary 18, the 
House Committee on Merchant Marines and Fisheries had favorably 
reported out such a bill, but Congress did not act on it prior to adjourn- 
ment on March 3. Not until more than a year later did the Sixty-first 
Congress enact wireless legislation. 

On June 24, 1910, the Wireless Ship Act was passed. It provided 
that any oceangoing steamer sailing in or out of United States ports, 
carrying fifty or more persons, and plying between ports two hundred 
miles or more apart be equipped with “efficient apparatus for radio- 
communication, in good working order, in charge of a person skilled in 
the use of such apparatus.” The apparatus was to be capable of receiving 
and transmitting messages over one hundred miles, day or night. Inter- 
communication between competing systems was mandatory. The law 
was to go into effect in July 1911, giving shipowners one year to equip 
themselves. 9 

Arguing against the Wireless Ship Act was difficult. The measure 
sought to democratize the advantages of wireless at sea, and it provided 
enterprising wireless concerns with additional business, because many 
ships still needed to be equipped. But rather than limit access to and 
movement within the ether, this legislation mandated access for still 
more people. The 1910 act officially recognized the importance of wire- 
less as a life-saving device, yet that usefulness was being eroded by the 
ever-increasing number of wireless transmitters, an increase the 1910 act 
fostered. Thus, while passengers on most ships now' had potential access 
to the ether, that privilege was made less valuable to all by the over- 
population. The law exacerbated interference. 

Congress had addressed the issue of using wireless to improve ship- 
board safety. As reports describing malicious interference increased, mili- 
tary officials continued to appeal to Congress to enact legislation to reme- 
dy that problem as well. Secretary of the Navy G. V. L. Meyer charged 
that “vicious” California amateurs had “tapped” official messages origi- 
nating from Mare Island and leaked them to “sensational newspapers” 
for publication. Were there no rights to privacy in the ether which should 
be backed up by law? Charles Norton, acting secretary of the treasury, 


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The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation 


submitted excerpts from the wireless logs of revenue cutters to document 
the altercations and standoffs in the air waves. The log of the USS Mc- 
Culloch for November 4, 1909, read: 

3.20 p.m. called Tl, sent him an official message; when I listened in for 
acknowledgement or OK for our message, CH (United Wireless) oper- 
ator CX, maliciously broke in on us and said “we will show RCH 
(McCulloch) that our spark is stronger than his and drown him out.” 

3.35 p.m. told CH to please keep out, as our message was a rush 
government message. He said “you needn’t think you are so damned 
much; wait until 4 p.m.” His station being the stronger TI received our 
message at 4.10 p.m . 10 

Because the ether was still a frontier, might made right, and the military 
often did not have the technical might. Other testimony recounted ama- 
teurs sending false CQDs “for fun” and to get attention. The parameters 
that circumscribed free speech in a public place such as the proverbial 
movie house had not yet been imposed in the ether, yet an anonymous 
cry of “Fire” in the airwaves was equally, if not more, dangerous. 

A Telefunken operator aboard the SS Bremen submitted a letter to 
the House of Representatives complaining about interference that, judg- 
ing by its content, originated from a source other than the amateurs. 
“First,” the operator reported, “I heard some very profane language: 
‘God-damned Slaby-Arco, rotten louse, humpbacked monkeys,’ and 
other slang.” 11 While this sort of transmission may have been amusing to 
Marconi Company operators, and may even have been useful corporate 
propaganda, it was hardly a noble exploitation of a limited natural re- 
source. As each company and interest group tried to maximize its use of 
and position in the ether, the negative effects of the overuse and jockey- 
ing for position hurt all users. The government was becoming in- 
creasingly concerned about pollution of the ether. By 1910, six bills 
addressing these problems were circulating in Congress. 

The three bills that received the most press coverage in 1910 were 
the Greene, Depew, and Roberts bills. The Greene (House) and Depew 
(Senate) bills were similar: they were intended to legislate away the 
interference afflicting the government stations. They sought to license 
wireless operators, to impose fines for malicious interference, and to 
establish the priority of distress signals and official messages. As an addi- 
tional safeguard against private interference with government stations, 
the president of the United States would be empowered to “establish 
from time to time regulations by designation of wave lengths or other- 
wise to govern said private or commercial stations.” 12 The wireless 


• 221 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


companies and operators were to be licensed by the Department of 
Commerce and Labor, and if any provisions of the law were violated, the 
department could revoke licenses. The secretary of commerce and labor 
was selected to oversee wireless because he already had general control 
over the regulation of life-saving appliances on shipboard. 13 The trans- 
mission of fraudulent messages was to be punishable by a fine of not more 
than $2,500 or imprisonment for not more than five years. 

Although the clause establishing presidential power to regulate the 
private stations by “wave lengths or otherwise” was attacked as too 
vague and impracticable by the wireless companies, Congress did not 
know what other standard to use; wavelengths seemed to the layman 
the most equitable and least arbitrary way to allocate the resource. 
Technical guidelines seemed more rational and fair than economic and 
political ones. If, however, the president chose to impose the wavelength 
allocations selected during the 1906 conference, the assignments would 
not, in commercial eyes, be equal. The inventors argued that those wave 
allocations would exacerbate interference rather than reduce it. NESCO 
representatives pointed out that the 300-meter assignment created a 
party line for all maritime business and that in a busy port, some ships 
would wait for hours to get on this communal wavelength: “No way 
could possibly have been devised better calculated to give the maximum 
of interference and the minimum of practical service than this proposed 
rule requiring all ships to use the same party line.” 14 Congress was 
careful not to spell out wavelength allocations. The words or otherwise 
were included because the House Committee on Merchant Marines and 
Fisheries sensed it did not yet have all the pertinent information. The 
committee anticipated that in the future, standards other than wave- 
lengths might be used to sort out competing claims. “What those stan- 
dards may be,” the committee maintained, “cannot be forecast in fact, 
much less in the terms of a statute, for the advance of the art may add new 
words to the language.” 15 

Hearings began in 1910 on both bills, in the House committee and in 
the Senate Committee on Commerce. Each side of the wireless regula- 
tion argument produced evidence to support different criteria for estab- 
lishing priority in the airwaves. The amateurs claimed that official mes- 
sages should not have priority because the messages were rarely 
authentically official. Their position was endorsed by the New York 
Times, which asked: “Must the splendid wireless operations of the trans- 
atlantic liners and of the radio telegraphic companies on land ... be 
suspended whenever two subalterns choose to greet each other through 
the ether?” 16 In 1910, America’s amateurs were not sufficiently orga- 


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The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation 


nized to orchestrate a coordinated lobbying campaign against the pro- 
posed legislation, but members of the Junior Wireless Club of New 
Jersey traveled to Washington in April to argue against the Depew bill. 
Their testimony was described in headlines such as “Senators Hear Boys’ 
Plea.” The New York Times reported that W.E.D. Stokes, Jr., president of 
the club, who was still in his early teens, testified “on behalf of the 
inventive genius of the American boy .” 17 Hugo Gernsback encouraged 
members of his Wireless Association of America to mail in protests to 
Senator Depew and Congressman Greene . 18 The amateurs advised Sen- 
ator Depew that if the navy modernized its equipment and sent all its 
messages in cipher, much of the interference could be reduced without 
resorting to legislation. “Any skilled government operator knows the 
touch and tone of every other government operator,” the amateurs claim- 
ed, “just as you know the voice of your wife from the voice of your 
son. ... If our government used only certain wave lengths, they should 
be able to tune out all other interferences .” 19 The amateurs were not 
objecting to the establishment of a party line in the ether; they simply 
wanted the navy, rather than the private sector, to be obliged to use it. 

The press had begun to denounce the irresponsibility of some of the 
amateurs; nevertheless, editorials generally did not support the proposed 
solutions. The last thing the press wanted was regulation that would 
transfer some of the prerogatives of private enterprise to the state. The 
features to receive the most criticism were the automatic priority granted 
to official messages and the power bestowed on the secretary of com- 
merce and labor. The militarization of the ether was especially un- 
popular. Electrical World opposed the “exaltation of the military over the 
other classes of American people” and questioned the assumption “that 
the government has some sort of prescriptive right to an art which a long 
line of scientists and inventors has endowed the world .” 20 The New York 
Times maintained: “This Nation and the pursuits of its people are not 
maintained for the sake of the army and navy, and their officialism.” “The 
pathways of the ether should not be involved in red tape,” the news- 
paper added . 21 

Editorials charged that the Greene and Depew bills would make the 
secretary of commerce and labor a wireless czar, a position deemed 
incompatible with American democratic principles. The New York Times 
claimed that the bills were “doubly mischievous” because they conferred 
on the secretary, “an official who can know nothing about the technical 
demands of private wireless business, practically unlimited power of 
determining its conduct .” 22 Scientific American agreed, maintaining that 
the power such bills gave to the secretary was “excessive” and might 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


lead to “gross abuses.” “To suppose that one person in a short term of 
office could gain a comprehensive knowledge of so large a subject — one 
which he must handle as a dictator — is absurd,” the journal asserted. 23 
The Times warned, “As for permitting government bureaus to issue, 
modify, amend, and revoke the rules that shall govern wireless, the idea 
ought not to be tolerated, save in time of actual war. Official control of 
commercial wireless business would be always in the bureaucratic in- 
terest, and not in the interest of progress and enlightenment.” 24 The 
technical journals complained that the wireless bills were drafted by 
people who knew nothing about wireless. 25 Scientific American lec- 
tured, “This question of radio-telegraphy is too big for settlement 
through legislative ‘jokers.’ . . . The reports of wireless committee con- 
ferences, ludicrous in the extreme from a scientific standpoint, prove this 
fact.” 26 United Wireless representatives wondered if the secretary of 
commerce was going to exercise any discretion in granting licenses. 
Otherwise, he would have to issue them to all applicants, and this was 
not a policy that would reduce interference. 27 Repeatedly, the press 
endorsed and legitimated commercial claims to the airwaves, equating 
those claims with democracy and progress, and government claims with 
inefficiency and inequity. 

In supporting the Greene bill and the proposed priority of official 
messages, the Department of Commerce and Labor noted that the “pri- 
ority of government messages by ordinary telegraph lines [had] been 
guaranteed in the United States since the Act of July 24, 1886.” 28 The 
report of the House Committee on Merchant Marines and Fisheries main- 
tained that the bill would not “deprive many bright American boy ama- 
teurs with a scientific turn of mind of a harmless and improving pastime, 
from which the country may hope to reap the benefit in future inven- 
tions.” The committee wanted the government, through licensing, to 
police the amateurs, not eliminate them: “The police regulations of near- 
ly all large cities prescribe a permit before a boy is allowed to carry a 
revolver, which at most could shoot a few hundred yards and possible hit 
one man. Amateur wireless . . . may readily interfere with messages 
from a ship in distress with hundreds of lives on board.” 29 The committee 
also noted that the legislation would be instructive: “The Committee 
means fair play for industrious, inventive American boys. . . .In learning 
wireless these boys may well at the same time study their duties to others 
and the obligation of an American citizen to obey the law.” 30 While the 
committees felt obliged to address the amateurs’ concerns, they were not 
won over by amateur or commercial testimony. On March 28, 1910, 
Merchant Marines and Fisheries reported out the Greene bill by unan- 


• 224 ■ 


The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation 


imous vote. The Committee on Commerce favorably reported out the 
Depew bill on April 28, 1910, and the bill passed the Senate on June 16, 
1910. The House, however, did not act on the Depew bill, and no 
consensus legislation emerged. 31 

The 1910 bill that was more comprehensive and proposed a long- 
term approach to radio regulation was the Roberts bill, House Joint 
Resolution 95. This bill proposed that the president create a board of 
seven members with one expert each from the war, navy, and treasury 
departments, three experts representing the commercial wireless in- 
terests, and one scientist “well versed in the art of electric-wave telegra- 
phy and telephony.” The board would, throughout 1910, “prepare a 
comprehensive system of regulations to govern the operation of all wire- 
less plants afloat and ashore . . . with due regard alike to government 
and commercial interests.” The board’s report would be submitted by 
December 1, 1910. 32 The bill anointed no one as wireless czar, but 
sought to distribute influence among seven “experts.” Amateurs and 
those who manufactured apparatus for the amateurs opposed the 
Roberts bill because the proposed board had no member representing the 
independent operator. The amateurs tried to present themselves as repre- 
senting the general public to imbue their position with more legitimacy 
and import. They claimed that to consider only the needs of government 
and business was undemocratic. As one amateur wrote in opposing the 
Roberts bill: “To vest legitimately in a wireless board, then, the proposed 
jurisdiction, it would seem but proper that all those individuals who are 
rightful owners of the atmosphere over their respective properties trans- 
versible by wireless messages should be consulted in the matter.” 33 Al- 
though the Roberts bill set an important precedent by suggesting an 
alternative mechanism for wireless regulation, it did not pass in 1910. Yet 
it helped establish the legislative choices: Should wireless be adminis- 
tered by one man or by many? Did administration of wireless require 
autocratic powers, or bureaucratic management informed by experts? 

With each new congressional session, bills to regulate wireless were 
introduced. None passed. In 1912, thirteen such bills were submitted. 34 
The chairman of the Committee on Merchant Marines and Fisheries, 
Congressman J. W. Alexander, and the chairman of the Committee on 
Commerce, Senator Knute Nelson, introduced similar bills designed to 
reduce interference. The Nelson bill, introduced on December 11, 1911, 
was like its predecessors in that it provided regulation of wireless by the 
secretary of commerce and labor. It was referred to a subcommittee of 
the Senate Committee on Commerce. Early in 1912, the subcommittee 
reported that it had become “convinced that the bill bestowed too great 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


powers upon the departments of Government and gave too great priv- 
ileges to military and naval stations, while it did not accurately define the 
limitations and conditions under which commercial enterprises could be 
conducted.” In February of 1912 the subcommittee began revising the 
legislation. 35 The one significant regulatory development that occurred 
at this time was the ratification of the treaty of the International Wireless 
Convention on April 3. A third convention was scheduled for June 1912, 
and the United States was informed that its delegates would not be 
welcome unless it ratified the treaty. 

The conflict in the airwaves did not appear to involve the general 
population, and the military services, the wireless companies, and the 
amateurs were not, in 1910, politically powerful interest groups. Al- 
though congressional willingness to regulate wireless was clearly in- 
creasing, the interference problem would have to touch many more 
people before both houses of Congress would get together to enact more 
comprehensive wireless legislation. Overpopulation in the spectrum 
would have to affect those who barely knew the spectrum existed or 
that activity in it could profoundly affect their lives. A 1910 House report 
warned that waiting for such a time could prove irresponsible: “If the 
use of wireless is not to be regulated, it may in the future result in 
disaster.” 36 In 1912, that disaster occurred. 


ON APRIL 10, 1912, the world’s largest and most sumptuous ocean liner 
set sail from England for New York City. 37 The New York Times carried 
photographs of the ship’s elegant interior and listed the luminaries who 
had booked passage on the Titanic for its maiden voyage. The ship repre- 
sented technological audacity and arrogance taken to their limits. The 
owners proclaimed the ship unsinkable. It was what men dreamed of 
when they worked on machines: it was the biggest and the fastest, and it 
was impervious to the whims of nature. Guglielmo Marconi had booked 
passage on the ship, but a change in plans forced him to cancel. The 
captain of the ship, appreciating that the owners wanted to set a new 
transatlantic speed record, sought to make the crossing as quickly as 
possible. 

On April 15, the New York Times reported that it had learned from 
the Marconi Cape Race, Newfoundland, station that the Titanic had hit 
an iceberg, but the article expressed no alarm. The newspaper reassured 
its readers by listing all the other ships in the Titanic ’ s vicinity and all the 
other liners that had in the recent past hit icebergs and nevertheless 
arrived safely in port. Supporting this sanguine tone was a wireless 


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The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation 


message reading “All Titanic Passengers Safe; Towing to Halifax,” which 
was picked up by stations on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as by 
Lloyd’s and the London Times . 38 

Few were prepared for the next day’s horrifying headlines. The 
Titanic had sunk in less than three hours, at approximately 2:30 a.m., 
taking more than fifteen hundred passengers with it. Between eight 
hundred and nine hundred survived, mostly women and children. Al- 
though the ship had been drastically underequipped with lifeboats, and 
the captain had taken the ship too quickly through an ice field, wireless 
emerged as the invention that had both permitted many to survive and 
caused many more to die. As the story unfolded in the press during the 
next few weeks, the status of wireless and wireless regulation were 
permanently altered. 

As soon as the Titanic struck the iceberg, Jack Phillips, one of the 
ship’s wireless operators, began sending distress signals and the ship’s 
position. The Marconi Station at Cape Race received the news Sunday 
night at 10:25 New York time — almost immediately after the collision 
occurred. Two other liners, the Parisian and the Virginian, also received 
the news immediately, but they were twelve hours away from the 
Titanic. Tragically, ships in the Titanic’s vicinity never heard Phillips’s 
call. The only nearby ship that received the repeated CQD and SOS 
messages was the Carpathia, which caught the message only “by a lucky 
fluke.” Like most other ocean liners, the Carpathia had only one wireless 
operator, who worked for twelve or sixteen hours straight. When he 
retired for the evening, the wireless apparatus was unattended. On this 
particular night, the Carpathia’ s operator, Harold Cottam, had finished 
his work for the evening but had returned to the wireless room to verify 
a “time rush,” which was a comparison of two ships’ times to check the 
agreement of their clocks. When he put on his headphones, he heard the 
Titanic’s call for help. Had Cottam not returned to his wireless set, no 
help would have arrived until late the following morning. Such were the 
consequences of not having a loudspeaker, a relief operator, or a distress 
alarm for the sleeping operator. The Carpathia was fifty-eight miles from 
the Titanic, and when it arrived at the scene three and a half hours after 
hearing the distress call, it could only rescue those who had managed to 
get into the lifeboats. 39 

The California was less than twenty miles from the Titanic when 
the accident occurred. But the California’s only wireless operator was 
asleep when the Titanic broadcast its distress calls. Also, because the 
California was traveling through the same ice field as the Titanic, its 
captain, as a matter of safety, had shut down the engines and decided to 


• 227 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 



eljc Jfcttr Jhirk Stimejs. 




ONLY 400 TITANIC SURVIVORS NAMED BY CARPATHIA; 
WIRELESS SEARCH OF THE SEAS FOR FURTHER NEWS 


The Titanic disaster made wireless telegraphy front-page news. 


wait for daylight before proceeding. Captain Lord explained: “With the 
engines stopped the wireless was, of course, not working, so we heard 
nothing of the Titanic ’ s plight until the next morning. . . . Had we only 
known of the Titanic’s plight all the . . . passengers could have been 
saved .” 40 Another ship, the freight steamer Lena, was within thirty 
miles of the Titanic. But it was not equipped with a wireless outfit. The 
tragedy exposed how very inadequate shipboard use of wireless had 
been. To have only one wireless operator providing communication for 
only half a day was gambling with very high stakes. The lack of auxiliary 
power to operate wireless apparatus in the event the ship’s main boiler 
plant failed was equally dangerous and easily remedied. 

Although this somewhat cavalier attitude toward wireless use 
aboard ships caused concern, no aspect of the tragedy outraged people 
more than the ceaseless interference, cruel rumors, and misleading mes- 
sages that filled the air from unknown sources during the disaster. Friends 
and relatives were desperate for information. Marconi, in New York, 
wrote to his wife, “I’ve witnessed the most harrowing scenes of frantic 
people coming here to me and to the offices of the Company to implore 


• 228 ■ 




The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation 


and beg us to find out if there might not be some hope for their rela- 
tions.” 41 Shortly after the Titanic struck the iceberg, wireless stations 
along the northeast coast of North America clogged the airwaves with 
inquiries and messages. The New York Times described the Sable Island, 
Nova Scotia, station as “the storm centre of a great battle for news of the 
missing passengers and crew. . . . The wireless operators at Sable Island 
are overwhelmed with messages which have come from all quarters 
from relatives of passengers craving for news.” The Marconi Company 
complained about the interference Marconi operators were subjected to 
by “outside unrecognized stations.” Out of this early “congestion of in- 
quiries” emerged the message reporting that the Titanic was moving 
safely toward Halifax. When the American and British press learned that 
this news was completely false and that the Titanic had, in fact, sunk, its 
editors were appalled. The amateurs were accused of manufacturing the 
deception and were universally condemned. 42 Electrical World wrote, 
“Someone, perhaps in carelessness, perhaps in fear or in greed, sent false 
messages of rescue. Such a person . . . ought to serve a long term in a 
federal prison. No measures of repression are too severe for the emergen- 
cy before us.” 43 Literary Digest referred to the false message as “essen- 
tially the act of a coward.” “That persons of sufficient education and skill 
to operate wireless apparatus will stoop to such things,” the Digest 
lamented, “is almost unbelievable.” The Times of London described such 
messages as “inventions of a cruel and heartless kind.” President Taft 
denounced the malicious interference as “perversion.” 44 

On April 21, Captain Haddock of the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, 
offered an explanation for the erroneous report of the Titanic’s safety. As 
soon as Glace Bay transmitted news of the Titanic’s plight, operators 
from all over asked the question “Are all Titanic passengers safe?” At the 
same time, the steamship Asian’s operator sent the message “Towing oil 
tank to Halifax.” Captain Haddock “suggested that the two Marconi- 
grams quoted above had been tapped in transit by amateurs or otherwise 
unskilled operators, who omitted the interrogatory ‘are’ in the first mes- 
sage, and caught the words ‘towing’ and ‘to Halifax’ in the second, 
making the whole cloth message.” The Halifax station tended to confirm 
this explanation. Its operators stated that “the air was full of wireless 
flashes from ship and shore stations, and ... it was very difficult to piece 
together connected statements.” However, by now intent and moti- 
vation were irrelevant. The false messages had been transmitted; inter- 
ference had reached a dangerous level. In the eyes of the press, the ether 
could no longer be used as a playground for youngsters. 45 

After the newspapers had established that the Titanic had sunk, and 


• 229 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


the Carpathia was en route to New York City with the survivors, com- 
munication between the Carpathia and the shore stopped. The Car- 
pathian wireless range of eighty-five miles was not nearly as great as the 
Titanic’s or the Olympic’s, and its operator had relayed news of the 
rescue to New York via the Olympic. Without this relay, the Siasconset 
station could not pick up the Carpathia. 46 Because so many people were 
desperately awaiting the publication of the survivors list, President Taft 
sent two navy scout cruisers to intercept the Carpathia on its way back 
to New York so that the names of the survivors could be wirelessed in 
advance of the ship’s arrival. The wireless range of the two cruisers was 
claimed to be 1,500 miles, and the headlines describing their mission read 
“Wireless Search of the Seas for Further News.” Inability to receive 
news from the Carpathia illustrated another deficiency. Despite recent 
legislation mandating 100-mile performance, the Carpathia, like many 
ships, had an extremely limited range — had it been the ship to hit the 
iceberg, her distress signals would never have reached the shore. Com- 
munication with the Carpathia remained elusive despite the scout 
cruisers, and when the liner arrived in New York, the Titanic’s surviving 
wireless operator, Harold Bride, who helped man the Carpathia station, 
explained why: “The navy operators aboard the scout cruisers were a 
great nuisance. I advise them all to learn the Continental Morse and learn 
to speed up in it if they ever expect to be worth their salt. The Chester’s 
man thought he knew it but he was as slow as Christmas coming.” 47 
Like Jack Binns of Republic fame, Bride became a national hero. 
After being rescued by the Carpathia, where he was hospitalized, he 
went on crutches to the ship’s wireless room to begin sending messages. 
When the Carpathia arrived in New York, Marconi himself went to the 
wireless room to see Bride. The New York Times offered this roman- 
ticized account of the meeting: “Slowly the youth turned his head 
around, still working the key. The hair was long and black and the eyes in 
the semidarkness were large — staringly large. The face was small and 
rather spiritual, one which might be expected in a painting. It was clear 
that from the first tragic moment the boy had known no relief. Mr. 
Marconi asked the operator how his feet were. Both were in bandages 
and he was working seated on the edge of his bed. A plate of food at his 
side told how he had eaten.” Bride’s partner on the Titanic, Jack Phillips, 
had died while sending the distress calls. Bride told the New York Times 
how Phillips had heroically continued to send distress signals even after 
the captain told him to abandon ship. Phillips became a legend, and 
statues were erected on both sides of the Atlantic to commemorate his 
courage. 


• 230 • 



The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation 


Marconi was deified in the press: some editorials gave him sole 
credit for saving the lives of the Titanic’s survivors. The New York Times 
wrote: “If Guglielmo Marconi were not one of the most modest of men, 
as well as of great men, we would have heard something, possibly much, 
from him as to the emotions he must have felt when he went down to the 
Cunard wharf, Thursday night, and saw coming off the Carpathia, hun- 
dred after hundred, the survivors of the Titanic, every one of whom 
owed life itself to his knowledge as a scientist and his genius as an 
inventor.” 48 While presenting an address to the New York Electrical 
Society on April 17, he was continuously interrupted by “tumultuous 
applause.” 49 He confided to his wife, “Everyone seems so grateful to 
wireless — 1 can’t go about New York without being mobbed and 
cheered — worse than Italy.” 50 The New York Times viewed the event 
this way: “To realize what the wireless did in this case one must think, 
not of those who were drowned, but of those who were saved.” 51 

Yet people could not get those who were drowned out of their 
minds. Newspapers and magazines were filled with wrenching eyewit- 
ness accounts of husbands and wives parting, of women refusing to leave 
their husbands’ side, preferring to die instead, and of the horrible screams 
of death the shocked and freezing survivors would never forget. Other 
stories told of people in packed lifeboats who were forced to refuse to let 
another survivor in because one more person would sink the boat. It was 
a hideous choice to have to make, and those in the lifeboats sometimes 
watched the one they had denied die in the sea. These, the press lectured, 
were the costs of technical arrogance, of the quest for speed and luxury 
instead of safety, of the desire to be biggest and fastest, of the belief that 
machines could make men impervious to nature. They were the costs of 
unregulated industrial capitalism writ large and indelibly. 

In every leading newspaper and magazine, the reaction to the trag- 
edy was the same: the “permanent cure . . . should be, and no doubt 
will be, fixed government regulations.” 52 Electrical World editorialized, 
“The recent disaster to the Titanic points with terrible and fateful di- 
rectness to the absolute necessity of a controlling power to regulate 
wireless telegraphy.” 53 The press advocated that the number of lifeboats, 
the use of wireless, and even the speed ships could travel through ice 
fields, all be fixed by law. Journalistic rhetoric emphasized the two ills 
such regulation would address: corporate lack of conscience and the 
vulnerability such disregard imposed on innocent people. As World’s 
Work put it, “A disaster that shocked the whole civilized world was 
necessary to awaken us from a false sense of security.” 54 What Ameri- 
cans had to be awakened to was not that corporate control of transporta- 


• 231 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


tion or communication was in and of itself bad, but that such control had 
to be monitored better. The press laid out the terms under which state 
intervention in corporate activity — in this case, wireless — could take 
place, and under what circumstances it was justified. 

The regulation of wireless now was framed in the same terms that 
had framed earlier social or antitrust legislation. The Titanic disaster 
happened, after all, during the Progressive Era, when the call for regulat- 
ing many aspects of American society was incessant and insistent. The 
Progressive Era marked the ascendancy of the conviction that the state 
had to assume a more interventionist role in the marketplace as a way of 
making individual Americans less vulnerable to institutional forces be- 
yond their control. When scandals broke out in the meat-packing indus- 
try, or a crisis occurred in the oil cartels, or graft and corruption was 
discovered in city government, the response was the same: correct the 
ills through regulation. Newspapers and magazines cast the federal gov- 
ernment as the agent of “the people” whose duty was to give the people 
more control over the trusts, to circumscribe corporate arrogance and 
hegemony, and to make people less vulnerable to business’s self-serving 
agendas. This idealistic prose often disguised the fact that many of the 
newly regulated industries benefited from, and in fact helped design, 
Progressive Era legislation. Journalistic rhetoric surrounding new laws 
made certain legislation seem onerous to business, whereas these laws 
often brought much desired predictability and stability to corporate 
activities. 

The press distilled and articulated the ideological debates surround- 
ing regulation, and made clear which long-held American values and 
traditions were being threatened by corporate combination. Through 
political cartoons, inflated and flowery language, and sheer expressions 
of outrage, the press maintained that values, ethics, and aspirations did 
matter, and that there were certain things in which Americans believed, 
certain images Americans had of themselves and their country, which 
could not be sacrificed on the altar of industrial capitalism. Although 
corporate agendas may, in many cases, have overridden the plea to pre- 
serve traditional values and ideals, that such rhetorical protests played a 
critical role in the regulatory process — that these pleas had to be taken 
into account, even if they were co-opted later — was a significant aspect 
of America’s regulatory process . 55 Certainly with a question such as 
“Who owns the airwaves?” sentiments, dreams, and ideology had as 
much to offer the debate as did legal precedent, which was extremely 
skimpy, or corporate intent, which was as yet ill defined. 

As soon as the Carpathia arrived in New York, the Senate Commit- 


• 232 ■ 



The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation 


tee on Commerce began investigating the Titantic disaster, holding its 
preliminary hearings at the Waldorf-Astoria on April 20 and 21, and 
moving the hearings to Washington on April 22. Within four months, 
American radio would come under government supervision, and trans- 
mitting in the ether would be not a right, but a privilege assigned by the 
state. 


AFTER THE TITANIC tragedy, the perceived value of the ether as a 
resource increased immeasurably, and the resource had to become more 
serviceable. The necessary reforms were now obvious to the press and to 
Congress. Mandatory shipboard wireless was insufficient; the wireless 
had to be manned at all times. Auxiliary power in case of engine failure 
was essential. A strict and formal procedure for the transmission and 
reception of distress calls had to be officially established. Most important- 
ly, the amateurs had to be purged from the most desirable portion of the 
broadcast spectrum. They had to be transformed from an active to a 
passive audience, allowed to listen but not to “talk.” “Private stations of 
all kinds should be rigorously limited in wavelength and power,” main- 
tained Electrical World, “particularly the amateur stations which have 
no need for anything more than trivial energy.” The magazine added that 
“the wireless meddler” would have to be repressed.” 56 

The amateurs tried to exonerate themselves from blame for the false 
messages and interference. One amateur, in a letter to Scientific Ameri- 
can, claimed that the amateurs had become scapegoats: “A reason had to 
be given the public for the delay [of messages]. The blame was laid to the 
parties least able to defend themselves, as is usually the case. At once 
great headlines flared forth the atrocities of the ‘Wireless Meddler.’ ” 57 
But what the amateurs had to face was that in the aftermath of the 
Titanic disaster, an interest group more important than the amateurs or 
the military emerged to stake its claim to the ether: the general public. 
Regulation was necessary “to insure to the people of the United States an 
uninterrupted wireless service twenty-four hours a day for every day in 
the year.” 58 The ability of institutions, both government and corporate, 
to serve the public, particularly in life-or-death situations, surpassed any 
other claims to the ether, especially those voiced by seemingly scattered 
and unorganized individuals. 

Harold Cottam, the Carpathia operator, had testified at the Senate 
hearings that there were no regulations specifying what hours an oper- 
ator was to be on duty and that there was “nothing in the Marconi 
system at present to detect signals if the operator [was] not present.” The 


• 233 ■ 


INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


first act by Congress was to revise the 1910 law, now requiring ships 
carrying fifty or more persons to carry at least two skilled operators, 
with someone on duty at all times, and to have an auxiliary power 
supply available for the wireless. Shipping on the Great Lakes was 
included in the legislation. President Taft signed this bill on July 23, 
1912. 59 The more sweeping bill that was to regulate wireless, and then 
radio broadcasting, until 1927, was the Radio Act of 1912, passed on 
August 13. It took effect four months later, on December 13. 

The Radio Act required that all operators be licensed, that stations 
adhere to certain wave allocations, that distress calls take priority over 
all other calls, and that the secretary of commerce and labor be em- 
powered to issue licenses and make other regulations necessary to sort 
out the wireless chaos. Congress mandated that stations use undamped 
waves and issued specific technical guidelines for transmitters. Amateurs 
were relegated to a portion of the spectrum then considered useless: 
short waves of 200 meters and less. They could listen in on any frequency 
but could transmit only in this short-wave portion of the spectrum. The 
amateurs had been exiled to an ethereal reservation. 

To protect distress calls from interference, the law required that a 
station suspend all other work whenever it picked up a distress signal, 
and not return to its other work until the station could no longer be of 
service. If the station could not help in the rescue effort, it was to remain 
silent. Americans were to use the wavelength designated for distress 
calls at the International Conference: 300 meters. All shore stations were 
to listen in on the 300-meter band at intervals of fifteen minutes for at 
least two minutes. Shipboard stations had to have a transmitting ca- 
pability of 100 nautical miles. The United States formally adopted SOS as 
the official distress call. Intercommunication between systems was com- 
pulsory. Fines were established for irresponsible transmission: up to 
$500 for “malicious interference,” $2,500 for sending false distress calls. 
The secretary of commerce and labor had the power to suspend licenses 
for up to one year for violation of the law. Repeated disobedience was 
cause for license revocation. 

Most importantly, the new legislation secured for the navy increased 
hegemony in the spectrum. Wavelength allocations conformed to those 
assigned during the 1906 International Conference. Private stations 
were to use wavelengths below 600 meters or above 1,600 meters. That 
portion of the spectrum between 600 and 1,600 meters was reserved for 
government use. Ships within fifteen nautical miles of a government 
station were to reduce their transmitting power to one kilowatt. Be- 
cause the act sought to ensure that ships’ passengers would have access to 


• 234 • 



The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation 


wireless services, even if they were not near a commercial station, naval 
stations were now required to transmit and receive commercial mes- 
sages if there was no commercial station within a 100- mile radius. Many 
naval stations had to be upgraded and modernized to meet this provision. 
Armed with the new legal mandate and improved technology, the mili- 
tary would continue to increase its influence on activities in the 
airwaves. 

Congress also legally protected the privacy of wireless transmis- 
sions; fines were set for “broadcasting” private messages. During the 
congressional committee hearings of 1910, United Wireless had com- 
plained about the difficulty Americans encountered when trying to se- 
cure wireless licenses in foreign countries. The 1912 act provided that 
licenses would be issued only to citizens of the United States. In time of 
war or disaster, the president was empowered to close private wireless 
stations, or to authorize the government to take them over. 60 

The only evidence describing the Marconi Company’s role in shap- 
ing the 1912 act is John Bottomley’s statement from 1912 in which he 
reports, “The greatest care has been taken that no bill detrimental to our 
work or to the system generally should be permitted to pass.” 61 But both 
the company and Marconi supported regulation. The American Marconi 
Company enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the United States, having 
bought out or driven out of business its major competitors. The company 
was more consolidated and entrenched than ever, and interference from 
the amateurs was becoming highly costly. The amateurs were interfering 
both with ship-to-shore work and with Marconi’s wireless news ser- 
vices. In news dissemination, they provided unwelcome competition. In 
an interview published immediately after the Titanic disaster, Marconi 
advocated regulation and “control of amateur experimenters.” 62 With 
the amateurs consigned to short waves and the navy to the 600 to 1,600 
meter range, the regulation ensured that in America, the Marconi Com- 
pany would have portions of the spectrum entirely to itself. Thus, while 
it is difficult to determine whether Marconi had a hand in designing or 
promoting the legislation, it is clear that neither he nor his company 
suffered from it. 

By October, the secretary of commerce and labor had issued the 
regulations governing amateur stations and operators. The United States 
was divided into nine wireless districts, each district having its own 
office to manage the wireless affairs of that district. To get their wireless 
license, amateurs had to pass an examination that involved assembling a 
wireless outfit, determining if the set was faulty (and, if so, repairing it), 
sending and receiving messages at twenty words per minute in Conti- 


• 235 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


nental code, and passing a written exam. The government did not yet 
have facilities for administering the exams, so, ironically, the navy con- 
ducted them at nine stations throughout the country. The New York 
Times reported that “the general knowledge of wireless matters and the 
skill displayed [was] a surprise even to the Navy experts. More than 90 
percent of all applicants . . . passed the exam.” Amateur stations within 
five nautical miles of military stations were “rigidly restricted as to length 
of their wave and the power of their sending apparatus.” 63 

Amateur response to the 1912 law varied. Some amateurs dis- 
mantled their apparatus. 64 Others continued operating as before, but 
they were more courteous and deferential toward the government and 
commercial stations. Some amateurs did not stay below 200 meters and 
got away with the trespassing because the appropriations for administra- 
tion and enforcement of the 1912 law were insufficient. 65 One amateur 
from the Pittsburgh area recalled: “Nobody in radio knew anything 
about licensing. We knew that the commercial stations, by which I mean 
ship and government stations, had call signs, but I think there were very 
few people who had even heard of the license regulations, let alone read 
them . . . [and] no one thought the regulations applied to him, as an 
individual. It certainly didn’t apply to the listener.” 66 Amateur activity in 
the ether, thus, was circumscribed, but it was not eliminated. Hundreds 
of amateur stations around the country were licensed, as were thousands 
of operators. The amateurs began exploring their new slot in the spec- 
trum, and adjusting to but not acquiescing to institutional hegemony. 

The Radio Act of 1912 represents a watershed in wireless history, 
the point after which individual exploration of vast tracts of the ether 
would diminish and corporate management and exploitation, in close 
collaboration with the state, would increase. The American spectrum 
was partitioned: another frontier was partially closed. The 1912 law as a 
legislative artifact reveals American society’s early struggle to come to 
terms with an invisible, enigmatic, communally held resource whose 
potential was still only partially appreciated. 

The law acknowledged that property rights could be established in 
the ether and that the main claimants to those rights were institutional 
users. The amateurs, by exploiting democratic rhetoric, had tried to ar- 
gue that they represented “the people” and that the public had very 
legitimate interests in how the spectrum was used. The state acknowl- 
edged the latter point but maintained that the Titanic disaster had 
demonstrated all too well that the amateurs did not serve the needs of 
“the people” but in fact obstructed them. Thus, one critical precedent this 
law established in broadcast history was the assumption that only con- 


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The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation 


solidated institutions — in this case, the navy and the Marconi Com- 
pany — could anticipate, implement, and protect “the people’s” interest 
in spectrum use. At the same time, it was clear that government control 
of America’s airwaves, foreclosed for the time being by the 1912 law, 
was unlikely in the future, as well. Harold Bride, the Titanic wireless 
operator and Marconi Company employee, by complaining about the 
incompetence of naval operators, suggested what a predicament Amer- 
ica might get into if the navy controlled wireless communications. It was 
a complaint that reaffirmed stereotypes about the pitfalls of bureaucratic 
management. 

Another precedent established was that the state would assume an 
important role in assigning property rights in the spectrum. In other 
words, access to particular wavelengths would not be bought and sold 
on an open market. Rather, the state would determine priority on the 
basis of claimed needs, previous investment, and importance of the mes- 
sages. Those claims would be acknowledged by wavelength allocations. 
What established merit in 1912 was capital investment or military de- 
fense, coupled with language that justified custodial claims based on an 
invaluable service to humanity. This, too, was a significant precedent. 
For, under the guise of social responsibility, of protecting the lives of 
innocents, and of managing a resource more efficiently, the military and a 
communications monopoly secured dominant positions in America’s 
airwaves. 

The dilemma of who had a right to transmit and who did not was 
tackled in newspapers and magazines before it was worked out in Con- 
gress. Government control of any communications system was anathema 
to the press: it threatened their news-gathering capabilities and their 
organizational prerogatives. It opened the door to censorship, to making 
the press subservient to the state’s agendas. Thus, it is not surprising that 
the press, relying on the rhetoric of “progress” and “enlightenment,” kept 
asserting that the American people would not tolerate government con- 
trol of wireless. Editorials against premature regulation assumed an ac- 
cusatory tone and focused on the evils of military priority in the ether. 
Commercial claims, on the other hand, particularly Marconi’s, were cast 
as altruistic and forward looking. Marconi’s transatlantic wireless ser- 
vice, heralded as a boon to mankind, served the press and continued to 
cheapen and quicken news gathering. Marconi was used to personify the 
press’s preferred image of itself: socially responsible, concerned with the 
safety of others, efficient and profitable without being greedy. With the 
Titanic disaster, the press pointed to Marconi as the man responsible for 
lives being saved, and as the symbol of why commercial management 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


and hegemony had to be protected and maintained. Commercial control 
simply had to be regulated so that irresponsible capitalists too greedy to 
think of others would be compelled to do so in the future. 

In other regulation of the period, business leaders often had to listen 
carefully to bitter and angry critiques of corporate activities, and then 
figure out how to co-opt this criticism and eventually exploit it to their 
own ends. 67 This process involved developing public relations depart- 
ments and learning how to improve press coverage. In the case of wire- 
less, however, the press had a vested interest in how the invention was 
managed and, thus, in how it was portrayed. By 1912, Marconi had little 
public relations work to do with the press: newspapers saw his interests 
and theirs as one and pulled out all the democratic, “common man” 
rhetoric at their disposal to make readers — the public — see that these 
interests were also theirs. 

The amateurs, who had made such good copy between 1907 and 
1911, were less amusing when, instead of toying with the navy, they 
threatened commercial news-gathering networks. The press unan- 
imously denounced the amateurs after the Titanic disaster for interfering 
with “legitimate” message handling. What caused the amateurs to lose 
their freedom to roam the ether at will was not so much that the govern- 
ment would no longer tolerate that freedom, but that a very influential 
business, the press, found their activities a disruptive encroachment on its 
turf. This violation was cast, in journalistic rhetoric, as a selfish flouting of 
the safety and freedom of all Americans, as a challenge to basic ideals and 
values about right and wrong, good and bad. Thus, with wireless as with 
other regulatory issues of the Progressive Era, journalistic language that 
asserted the sacredness of certain American values dovetailed very well 
with and supported selected commercial priorities and investments. 

By the summer of 1912, the shape of American broadcasting was 
beginning to change, setting the stage for subsequent developments. Mar- 
coni now monopolized American wireless service and planned to build 
several major high-power stations on the East Coast. Fessenden and De 
Forest, both involved in court cases, had ceased to be major actors in the 
wireless story, but their inventions, particularly the alternator and the 
audion, were now in corporate hands. The navy was more centrally 
involved in wireless, but to preserve the hegemony it had gained through 
regulation, it would have to become more technically and organiza- 
tionally efficient. And then there were the amateurs, confined to their 
ethereal ghetto. One law of spectrum use maintains that “relatively 
deprived users are virtually forced to innovate spectrum-economizing, 
spectrum-developing technology.” 68 Did this hold true for the amateurs? 


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The Titanic Disaster and the First Radio Regulation 


Would they have any influence at all now that the deck was stacked in 
favor of institutional users and clients? The 1912 law did not deny the 
amateurs’ assertion that “the people” had a major stake in spectrum use. 
Many amateurs, seeing themselves, rather than institutions, as represen- 
tatives of the people, still believed fervently in this position. Did one 
disaster now mean individual Americans had no rights of access to this 
resource allegedly held in common? Even after the 1912 act, there were 
unresolved tensions between individual and institutional claims on the 
ether. The amateurs had lost their freedom to roam in and out of the 
airwaves. But whether their vision of how wireless might be used was 
also lost in 1912 remained to be seen. 


239 • 


CHAPTER EIGHT 


THE RISE OF MILITARY AND 
CORPORATE CONTROL 

1912-1919 


“WIRELESS SENDS VOICE over Atlantic,” proclaimed the front-page 
headlines of the October 22, 1915, issue of the New York Times. Despite 
“adverse conditions,” which included those imposed by the European 
war, “the human voice was projected across the Atlantic for the first time 
in history.” The fanfare accompanying the achievement was by now 
familiar, even predictable; the hero, however, was not. For the moment 
of glory did not belong to Guglielmo Marconi, or to any other inventor- 
hero. It belonged to AT&T and its ally, the U.S. Navy. The story was 
particularly emblematic of several changes transforming radio between 
1910 and 1920: the transfer of continuous wave radio technology from 
individual to institutional control, the increased role of the navy in wire- 
less affairs, and the tendency of the press to legitimate corporate visions 
of how radio should be managed, thought about, and used. 

John J. Carty, chief engineer for the telephone company, had orches- 
trated the new tests beautifully; he saw to it that all of the company’s 
claims were witnessed and verified by independent onlookers. Carty 
and his men had, with the government’s permission, installed a transmit- 
ter at the navy’s recently completed high-power wireless station in Ar- 
lington, Virginia. Two AT&T engineers brought receiving apparatus to 
France, where they had to persuade the otherwise preoccupied French 
government to let them use the Eiffel Tower for their tests. While impos- 
ing certain restrictions, the French government granted AT&T access to 
the tower. Meanwhile, Lloyd Espenschied, an AT&T engineer based in 
Pearl Harbor, readied his receiving equipment. B. B. Webb, one of the 
company’s engineers at Arlington, did the talking. His voice reportedly 
was heard and clearly recognizable both in Paris and in Pearl Harbor; 


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The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


French military officials verified the Paris results. The goal so long dream- 
ed of by inventors and journalists alike was now an “accomplished 
fact.” 1 

For AT&T, 1915 had been a spectacularly successful year, marked by 
several public relations coups. The transatlantic feat, which had earned 
the largest headlines, had been preceded by other equally revolutionary 
and well-publicized achievements. In January, the company completed a 
transcontinental telephone line from New York to San Francisco in time 
for the February opening of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. To publicize 
this feat, the company was shameless in its reliance on telephone leg- 
ends. Alexander Graham Bell at the New York end called his famous 
assistant in San Francisco and, repeating the historic line, asked, “Mr. 
Watson, are you there?” The New York Times reported that the two men 
“heard each other much more distinctly than they [had] in their first talk 
thirty-eight years [earlier].” 2 Within eight months, the company again 
sent the human voice across the continent, but this time without wires. 
AT&T had by now installed its wireless telephone transmitter at Arling- 
ton, and had receiving equipment in place at Mare Island, California. On 
September 29, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, on behalf of 
AT&T and the navy, announced the success of the transmission. Naval 
officials on the West Coast reported that the messages from 2,500 miles 
away were clearly audible. It was “the first time such a distance [had] 
been covered by wireless telephony.” 3 In addition, the Arlington trans- 
mitter was connected by telephone lines to AT&T’s main office in New 
York City. From there, Theodore Vail, the company’s president, spoke 
into his phone; his message went to Arlington and then “through the air” 
to Mare Island, where Carty recognized his boss’s voice. The next day, 
the front pages announced that the achievement was even greater than 
initially thought, because “a lone operator in a frame hut at the foot of a 
towering mast on the shore of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, knew that the 
human voice had been heard almost twice the distance, for he had lis- 
tened to words spoken in Washington, 4,600 miles away.” The New York 
Times pointed out that this was greater than the distance from New York 
to the North Pole. 4 The distance covered by these tests was amazing, 
almost unimaginable. With most eyes on Europe in 1915, it was the 
transatlantic message and the possibilities for regular wireless telephony 
service between New York and London, Paris, or Berlin that gripped the 
public imagination. 

How had AT&T achieved this coup of being the first to send a man’s 
voice over the Atlantic? How had AT&T edged Marconi off center stage? 
First and foremost, AT&T had gained control over critical patents. While 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


AT&T in 1907 had declined to negotiate with Fessenden, citing the still 
rudimentary operation of his wireless telephone, the company did not 
ignore his invention. Vail, who publicly disparaged wireless telephony as 
crude, impractical, and years away from commercial application, pri- 
vately monitored the invention’s progress. J. J. Carty, as head of research, 
kept a close watch on radio developments around the world. 5 The pub- 
licity wireless telegraphy and telephony received, especially newspaper 
stories suggesting that eventually everyone would have his or her own 
private wireless sets, concerned regional Bell companies and AT&T 
stockholders alike. 

This concern reached a new high when the Titantic disaster pushed 
wireless telegraphy onto the front pages as no other previous event had; 
wireless was now considered a necessity on ships. Subsequent disasters, 
such as fire aboard the Voltumo in October 1913, which might have 
killed all the passengers if not for wireless, or the midwestern blizzard 
that pulled down telegraph and telephone lines but could not stop wire- 
less transmissions, made wireless seem an indispensable part of modern 
life. When Marconi, his image burnished by the Titanic disaster, began 
publicly predicting long-distance and even transoceanic voice transmis- 
sion, Vail was faced with the specter of a major system with which 
AT&T would have to interconnect. This was completely unacceptable to 
Vail; he would not countenance connecting the Bell system with those of 
“outsiders.” He was willing to spend what was needed to preserve the 
purity and extend the reach of his system. Any technological system, 
whether it used wires or not, which sent the human voice over distances 
should, in Vail’s view, be firmly under AT&T control. 

This determination not to allow wireless telephony to become a 
competitor of telephone dovetailed with another of AT&T’s technical 
goals and within a few years made AT&T a major corporate force in the 
development of radio. Under Carty, AT&T researchers worked to extend 
long-distance service. At the turn of the century, the company had ac- 
quired the patent rights to Michael Pupin’s loading coil, which amplified 
telephone signals and reduced the cost of long-distance wiring. With 
Pupin’s coil, the company had been able to extend its long-distance ser- 
vice as far west as Denver, but no farther. Vail was committed to estab- 
lishing AT&T as a national monopoly, which meant providing coast- to- 
coast telephone service; the company thus had to find a “repeater” capa- 
ble of relaying signals across the country. Carty saw a possible solution in 
the work then being done on wireless telephony, because voices trans- 
mitted without wires were still faint and various inventors were work- 
ing to amplify these transmissions. In a telling and somewhat prophetic 


• 242 • 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


memo, Carty wrote, “Whoever can supply and control the necessary 
telephone repeater will exert a dominating influence on the art of wire- 
less telephony.” Carty then urged the company to adopt “vigorous mea- 
sures” to develop such a repeater before people not working for AT&T 
beat the company to it. He added: “A successful telephone repeater, 
therefore, would not only react most favorably upon our service where 
wires are used, but might put us in a position of control with respect to 
the art of wireless telephony should it turn out to be a factor of impor- 
tance.” 6 AT&T was under increased pressure to find such a repeater, 
pressure exerted by its own press releases. In 1909, Carty had an- 
nounced to the press that AT&T would have a transcontinental tele- 
phone line open in time for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, and he was 
determined to make good on his prediction. Research intensified to devel- 
op such a repeater, but by 1912 little progress had been made. 

At that point John Stone, who began and ended his career working 
for AT&T, suggested that Carty, his assistant Frank Jewett, and Harold 
Arnold, a recently hired physicist, consider experimenting with De For- 
est’s audion. While working at Federal Telegraph in California, De Forest 
experimented with combining three audions to increase amplification. 
He fed the output of the first tube into the input of the second and the 
output of the second into the input of the third; the audions “in cascade” 
produced much greater amplification than one audion alone. 7 De Forest 
demonstrated the audions before the AT&T men in October of 1912 and 
left several behind for study at their request. 

Since his earliest experiments in 1900, De Forest was convinced that 
the gas in the audion was essential to the detector’s operation. Harold 
Arnold, however, after extensive tests, determined that the audion oper- 
ated more effectively if the gas was exhausted from the tube. It was this 
step that transformed De Forest’s audion into the vacuum tube. Thus, the 
corporation found that it had its much desired repeater, and it was in 
possession of patents on its improvement, but an outsider still held the 
basic rights. 

Some controversy surrounds AT&T’s acquisition of the rights to use 
the audion as a telephone repeater. According to De Forest, after several 
weeks of waiting in the fall of 1912 to hear whether AT&T was in- 
terested or not, he was told that the company had not found the in- 
vention as promising as it had hoped; it was not interested, after all, in 
acquiring any rights to the audion. In the spring of 1913, De Forest, who 
had by this time left Federal Telegraph and was once again trying to 
manage his own company in New York, was approached by an attorney. 
The lawyer said he represented a client interested in the audion but that 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


the client insisted on remaining anonymous. He assured De Forest “on 
the word of a gentleman” that his client was not AT&T. He offered De 
Forest fifty thousand dollars for the exclusive rights to use the audion for 
telephone and telegraphic purposes. De Forest believed these rights 
were worth half a million dollars and found the offer disappointing. On 
the other hand, he desperately needed money; he reluctantly accepted 
the offer. About six weeks later, De Forest learned that these rights had in 
fact been transferred to AT&T ; he also heard that the company had been 
prepared to go as high as De Forest’s estimate of five hundred thousand 
dollars. 8 

AT&T had been able to take advantage of De Forest because he was 
in rather desperate straits. In April of 1912 he and his Radio-Telephone 
Company associates James Dunlop Smith and Elmer Burlingame had 
been arrested for using the mails “to defraud in the sale of wireless 
telephone stock.” 9 He claimed he did not have enough money to hire a 
lawyer, so Yale classmates raided a defense fund of $2,500 and hired as 
his attorney Harold Deming, who had worked in the U.S. attorney’s 
office in New York. The trial began in New York in November of 1913. 

The government pursued its case against Radio-Telephone with the 
same fervor it had brought to bear against United Wireless. Assistant 
U.S. District Attorney Robert Stephenson never missed a chance to ex- 
press outraged indignation over the inflated advertising claims and sleazy 
sales methods used to replenish the company’s coffers. He called more 
than one hundred witnesses “from nearly every state in the Union” to 
describe how they had “lost all they had invested” or to testify that De 
Forest’s radiophone was a worthless invention. 10 Much of the testimony 
was quite damning. Stephenson showed that through stock sales, the 
Radio-Telephone Company had raised more than $1.5 million. Only 
$345,000 of this found its way to the company’s treasuries; the remain- 
ing $1,161,000 cushioned the pockets of the company’s officers, agents, 
and promoters. 11 Frank Butler, De Forest’s assistant, portrayed the in- 
ventor as being above such shenanigans. But Butler’s portrait of the 
selfless, abstracted scientist was undermined when Stephenson pro- 
duced a letter De Forest had written to Butler in 1907. In it, De Forest 
urged Butler to continue pursuing a potential buyer of Radio-Telephone 
stock and to “get the $1,500 if you have to live with him.” The letter was 
signed “Yours for the rocks, Lee De Forest.” “Rocks,” it turned out, meant 
cash. 12 

In his summation, Stephenson portrayed all the defendants as equal- 
ly guilty. In one of his more dramatic flourishes, Stephenson held one of 
De Forest’s audions aloft in his hand and, gesturing with it, charged that 


■ 244 ■ 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


with “this worthless piece of glass” De Forest had claimed that soon it 
would be possible to send the human voice across the Atlantic. He urged 
that De Forest be sent, with the others, to the Atlanta Penitentiary. 13 

The case went to the jury just after noon on December 31, 1913. 
While others in the city celebrated New Year’s Eve, De Forest paced the 
courthouse halls, knotted with anxiety. Deming, his attorney, recalled 
that when a court attendant came to tell the two men the jury had 
returned, “De Forest collapsed and I caught him.” 14 At 1:00 a.m., New 
Year’s Day, 1914, the jury filed in. James Dunlop Smith and Elmer Bur- 
lingame were found guilty on two counts of mail fraud. De Forest was 
found not guilty on two counts of mail fraud. De Forest was found not 
guilty on the first three counts and on the fourth, conspiracy to defraud, 
the jury disagreed. He was a free man. 

De Forest resumed his radio work, concentrating on voice transmis- 
sion and reception, and renamed his company the Radio Telephone and 
Telegraph Company. His continued work in wireless telephony made 
him a man AT&T would keep an eye on. He rented a small factory and 
laboratory at Highbridge on the Harlem River, where his main business 
was manufacturing apparatus for amateur operators. 15 He began experi- 
menting with the audion as an oscillator, as a generator of radio waves. It 
was not the first time he had conducted such tests, but it may have been 
the first time he grasped the significance of what he was doing. 

Back in 1912, when De Forest was still working for Federal Tele- 
graph and was mindful of AT&T’s need for a signal repeater, he spent a 
considerable amount of time trying to increase the audion’s ability to 
amplify sound. This is when he connected three audions “in cascade,” 
which produced increased amplification. During these tests, De Forest 
and his associates discovered a new phenomenon. When signals were 
“fed back” from the output to the input of the same tube, the tube 
produced a “howl” in De Forest’s headphones. He jotted this observation 
in a laboratory notebook on August 6, 1912, and then worked to elimi- 
nate this irritating noise that could well compromise amplification. 
Across the country in New York, a young wireless amateur and student 
at Columbia University, Edwin Armstrong, made the same discovery. 
Armstrong, who was not constrained by the needs of AT&T, pursued the 
phenomenon and realized that the audion’s use was not limited to signal 
detection or amplification: it could generate radio waves, as well. 16 He 
described this arrangement as a regenerative circuit or feedback circuit, 
which could be used either to increase the audion’s sensitivity as a detec- 
tor or to generate oscillations. Because his father would not loan him the 
money to apply for a patent, Armstrong at first simply had his drawings 


• 245 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


of the circuit notarized on January 13, 1913. 17 In October he filed for a 
patent, and later in the year he delivered a paper before the Institute of 
Radio Engineers describing his discovery. 

It is not clear at what point De Forest learned of Armstrong’s work, 
but it must have been shortly after the trial ended. De Forest had dis- 
covered the phenomenon first, but there is very little evidence that he 
understood its implications. Only after Armstrong’s work did De Forest 
appreciate the significance of that mysterious howl. He applied for a 
patent on the audion as oscillator on March 20, 1914, and a patent on the 
feedback circuit on September 23, 1915. No radio patents have gener- 
ated more controversy than these. The subsequent litigation between De 
Forest and Armstrong lasted until 1934, went to the Supreme Court 
twice, and reportedly cost one and a half million dollars in lawyers’ fees. 
A prodigious amount of bile was expended as well, with acrimony high 
on both sides. After Armstrong won one of the early suits, he strung a 
banner with his patent number on it across his Yonkers home, which De 
Forest had to pass every day en route to and from his factory. 18 
Armstrong lost the case twice before the Supreme Court, yet many radio 
engineers and most radio historians consider him the bona fide inventor. 
He may have made the discovery months later than De Forest, but at least 
he knew exactly what he had. The discovery and the litigation were so 
momentous because the implications for radio transmission were revolu- 
tionary. Here was a compact and relatively inexpensive generator of 
radio waves — the tube — which, in a few years, would make Poulsen’s 
arc and Alexanderson’s alternator look like dinosaurs. 

By the summer of 1914, De Forest was in a different bargaining 
position than he had been in before his trial. Not only was the legal 
ordeal behind him, but also he had a small, viable company that was 
manufacturing apparatus, and he was wise to AT&T needs and tactics. 
When AT&T approached him about acquiring the wireless telephony 
rights to the audion, the company reportedly offered De Forest twenty- 
five thousand dollars and eventually paid ninety thousand dollars for a 
nonexclusive license. 19 This sum allowed De Forest to expand his man- 
ufacturing operations and resume the nouveau riche lifestyle he had 
come to know and love ten years earlier. He also got a taste of what 
AT&T had to offer and resolved to make an even larger dent in its treas- 
ury. De Forest was outraged that during the transcontinental telephone 
tests, neither Carty nor Vail mentioned him or his pathbreaking work in 
tubes. De Forest’s audion had been basic to AT&T’s success, yet when 
pressed by reporters, Vail had commented tersely, “As far as Mr. De 
Forest’s lamp goes, if it played any part in the wireless conversation with 


• 246 • 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


Mare Island it is news to me.” 20 De Forest was also incensed to find no 
mention of his pioneering work in AT&T’s huge exhibit at the Panama- 
Pacific Expo. He vowed to retaliate. He examined the patents the com- 
pany filed on vacuum tubes and whenever he found circuits resembling 
his own, he filed a patent covering similar claims. In this way he sought to 
harass the firm in an area it took extremely seriously. 21 

AT&T was interested in dispensing with De Forest once and for all, 
and the company wanted to be in the strongest possible position for its 
anticipated battles with American Marconi and General Electric over the 
control of wireless telephony. De Forest still held important patents, 
especially those covering the feedback circuit, and while these had not 
yet been tested in court, AT&T’s patent attorneys believed that De Forest 
had an excellent chance of defending them successfully. De Forest was 
looking for a windfall, and negotiations ensued. De Forest wanted a 
quarter of a million dollars. AT &T wanted exclusive rights under all of De 
Forest’s patents and under all vacuum tube inventions he might make 
over the next seven years. The company also wanted him out of the 
wireless telephony business. De Forest would agree to this last condition 
only if AT&T allowed him to continue manufacturing equipment for 
amateurs and to use his transmitters “for the distribution of music and 
news.” Since using the wireless telephone for broadcasting held no in- 
terest for AT&T, the company agreed. Although he complained in his 
diary that the deal would compel him to abandon “all the ambitions” of 
his “struggling years,” he did not hesitate, in the spring of 1917, to sign on 
the dotted line. 22 The transfer of technological control from independent 
inventor to corporate research lab was complete. 

By acquiring De Forest’s patents and transforming the audion into 
the vacuum tube, AT&T had gained control over one of the most impor- 
tant inventions of the era. But Theodore Vail, concerned as he was with 
corporate preeminence, knew that technical control was not enough. 
Public legitimacy mattered, too. So, just as Vail sought to link technical 
developments with AT&T’s business strategy, he also worked to shape 
his company’s public image in the pages of the press. The highly pub- 
licized staging of the transcontinental and transoceanic tests in 1915 
provided him with the perfect opportunity to legitimate, and even ro- 
manticize, what was, after all, one more step in the building of a national 
corporate monopoly. 

Vail and his engineers lost no time in interpreting the significance of 
the 1915 tests for reporters. Wireless telephony would never replace the 
existing wired telephone system, insisted Vail and Carty. Rather, the 
wireless would serve “as an extension of the telephone system to ships at 


• 247 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


sea” or to remote areas not yet served by telephone. 23 The wireless 
telephone would bring the benefits of the Bell system to those who were 
physically isolated from it. AT&T personnel in any way connected with 
these experiments reiterated this position at every opportunity, and it 
appeared as the central assumption in articles about the wireless tele- 
phone tests. Noting that “the wireless telephone adds to the wire tele- 
phone but does not take its place,” Carty added the public relations coup 
de grace: the wireless telephone represented, really, a “humanitarian 
rather than [a] commercial” venture. 24 The possibility of using the wire- 
less telephone for broadcasting was never mentioned, certainly not by 
AT&T personnel, who were not even thinking along those lines. 

Vail succeeded in having an extended press release printed as an 
interview in the October 17 New York Times Magazine. Titled “What 
Transcontinental Wireless Phone Means,” Vail’s lengthy statement was 
preceded by a reporter’s three-paragraph introduction. 25 “The white- 
haired, venerable magnate” was not particularly interested in the experi- 
ment’s “possible effect on the values of telephone company stock,” noted 
the credulous journalist. He was an altruist, more concerned with the 
“probable economic and social significance of the scientific miracle to the 
whole people.” Then Vail proceeded on his own. He began on a patriotic 
note by extolling “the one great nation in the world in which the people 
rule” and saying, “What impresses me is that we, in America, are doing 
this work, this big, constructive scientific work, at a time when all 
Europe is at war. That’s pretty fine.” He downplayed the possibility that 
the wireless telephone might make a lot of money for a few thousand 
people. What was more important was that “tens of thousands, hun- 
dreds of thousands, millions, the whole race, will draw from it a profit 
more desirable than dollars.” That profit included reduced isolation and 
“free communication between people,” which Vail maintained would 
educate Americans and “do away in this country with prejudice.” Those 
most in need of this “interchange of ideas and thought” were members of 
America’s “unassimilated mass.” The comments contained no small dose 
of paternalism and suggested that AT&T was the perfect custodian not 
only of America’s communications systems, but also of its deepest cultur- 
al aspirations. Vail skillfully used references to democracy, equality, al- 
truism, and brotherhood to legitimate and elevate AT&T’s corporate 
activities. To Vail, corporate goals and social goals were one. 

Vail was confident he knew what America wanted: it wanted cul- 
tural homogeneity. It wanted to achieve “nonpartisanship” and to agree 
on a “common course of action.” Technology, specifically communica- 
tions technology, would be the instrument through which Americans 


• 248 • 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


would ultimately achieve consensus, and Vail and AT&T were going to 
provide the machines to make this happen. They were also not loath to 
provide political direction; Vail spent the last two-thirds of his statement 
extolling the virtues of big business and outlining what the government’s 
role in the marketplace should be. He then made a comment that re- 
flected the rise of public relations agents and revealed the mindset of 
those who were coming to control radio technology. “Instead of listening 
to everyone seeking notoriety by attacking property or corporations,” 
Vail lectured, “every constructive mind in this country should endeavor 
to aid in getting accurate information concerning actual facts before the 
people. Many of them have been wrongly informed.” He added: “Ninety 
percent of the attacks on wealth are made by those who do not com- 
prehend wealth. . . . Why should business continually be attacked? . . . 
Every one of those condemning [success] is himself trying to achieve it.” 
While the connections were not made explicitly, they were there: if 
those (like Vail) who were correctly informed had access to a technology 
that could reach the “unassimilated mass” and deliver “actual facts,” then 
there would be much less tension between the people and the corpora- 
tions, and between the rich and the poor. There would then be a “com- 
mon course of action.” Not only had a major corporation demonstrated 
its control over wireless technology; it also sought to reshape how Amer- 
icans thought about that technology. Vail’s statement unwittingly offered 
the core ideas that eventually would come to guide the structure and 
content of American broadcasting. 

That the press promoted, without question, AT&T’s interpretation 
of its recent success is evidenced by magazine coverage of the wireless 
telephone feat. Literary Digest simply reprinted major portions of the 
New York Times stories that quoted Vail and Carty extensively . 26 World’s 
Work praised the achievement as a cooperative rather than an individual 
endeavor that relied on “men of many callings”: “It is an admirable 
example of the fine helpfulness and long-visioned patience of enlightened 
business working with pure scientists to achieve results that gratify both 
equally and that serve the public as well .” 27 The magazine envisioned a 
time when a man in Cleveland, using his own telephone, could have his 
speech transmitted first by wire, and then by wireless, to a man in 
London. The Independent, after marveling over the distance the human 
voice was sent, offered its view of the event’s significance: “Wireless 
telephony means that the billion and a half people living on this planet 
have been virtually gathered into one room where they can listen to one 
man’s voice. The human race has snuggled together like a family about a 
fireside on a cold evening and can chat comfortably with one another .” 28 


■ 249 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


Presumably, this “one man’s voice” would act as a unifying and homoge- 
nizing agent; a great but distant patriarch would be helping to make 
these billion and a half people less different from and more in tune with 
one another. They would become, through the auspices of monopoly 
capitalism, as harmonious as the mythical happy family. 

Several aspects of this press coverage are noteworthy and represent 
a major change from the way Marconi’s wireless achievements had been 
covered fifteen years earlier. First of all, it was not the inventor-hero who 
was tapping nature’s mysterious potential; now it was a corporation and 
its team of scientists and engineers who were mastering the great void. 
They were obviously, even emphatically, working to promote institu- 
tional goals. Vail and Carty received the most coverage, but neither was 
celebrated as an inventor-hero the way Marconi had been. The achieve- 
ment seemed more anonymous, a testimony to teamwork and organiza- 
tional resources rather than to one man’s lonely quest. The press ap- 
plauded such experiments as the proper province of responsible capital- 
ists whose success would promote social progress for all. Articles about 
the tests and the tests’ significance demonstrated the extent to which 
corporations had learned the skills of news management and public rela- 
tions. Coverage also revealed changing attitudes toward big business. 
The hated trusts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries 
were now becoming, in the pages of the press, farsighted and committed 
public benefactors. Gone were the visions of individuals speaking to 
whomever they wanted whenever they wanted without having to go 
through a corporate or government network. Also gone, for obvious 
reasons, were the predictions about world peace. Fanciful visions of a 
decentralized and democratized communication system that would take 
people into mysterious realms were replaced by corporate-defined ap- 
plications emphasizing public acquiescence to corporate control of the 
technology. The visions of 1900 had depicted the invention as the instru- 
ment of individual freedom; now, with the possibility of millions listen- 
ing to “one man’s voice,” radio was cast as the agent of conformity and 
passivity. 

This change in the portrayal of radio’s progress and potential was 
part of a larger conservative swing in the popular press away from 
muckraking and toward accommodation with and even admiration for 
American business. As a 1914 editorial in Collier’s saw it, there was in 
America “a swing toward reaction, a fatigue with tumult, ... a grow- 
ing distaste for the harsher and noisier leaders of reform, a tolerance, 
almost a sympathy for their victims.” 29 Certainly on the editorial boards 
of leading magazines and newspapers, such a swing had occurred. After 


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The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


1912, advertisers and creditors pressured newspapers and magazines to 
tone down or eliminate muckraking. Those who failed to comply found 
themselves suddenly short of revenue. Advertising had become in- 
creasingly important to the press; between 1914 and 1919 alone, adver- 
tising expenditures in newspapers and magazines doubled. For some 
publications, revenue from advertising began to outdistance revenue 
from sales. 30 Offending important advertisers, or critiquing the role of big 
business in America, was simply no longer a judicious journalistic style. 
In fact, magazines and newspapers themselves were becoming more 
consolidated, centralized, and bureaucratized every year, resembling in 
production method, distribution, and outlook the other major corpora- 
tions of America. Organization men with backgrounds in business were 
taking over editorships previously held by crusading journalists or upper- 
middle-class reformers. Mark Sullivan, for example, a writer who be- 
came editor of Collier’s in 1914, had to answer to an advisory manager 
who believed the magazine’s purpose was to give Americans “the kind 
of instruction . . . which comported with the well-being of business.” 31 

In the service of this goal, magazine heroes were, after 1914, men 
who presided over a large, bureaucratic organization and made it oper- 
ate efficiently while at the same time getting “results.” They were not 
rugged individuals who achieved their success alone; they were team 
players, genial, self-effacing, who made their organization’s success top 
priority. They were men like Vail and Carty, not untamable individuals 
like De Forest or independent inventors like the young Marconi. Often, 
the portraits of these new heroes had been suggested, or even created, by 
the growing cadre of press agents now being retained by major com- 
panies. It was progressive reformers who had most strongly advocated 
the use of publicity to educate the people, primarily about society’s ills 
and their possible cure. The great irony, of course, is that the progressives’ 
most attentive students turned out to be business firms, who sought to co- 
opt this faith in publicity to their own ends. Because adverse publicity 
and public agitation had proved a time-consuming nuisance in the past, 
corporations now wanted to “engineer public consent” so that middle- 
class Americans would see corporate goals as being consonant with, and 
even furthering, their own. 

The ethic of organizational efficiency, which gripped press manage- 
ment and filtered into the normative messages of stories and articles, 
showed how in the public, journalistic arena, values and attitudes were 
coming to terms with the bureaucratization of American life. For in the 
more private, behind-the-scenes world of corporate America, as well as 
throughout the federal government, the elaboration of internal hier- 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


archies, the rationalization of work that produced countless new rules 
and procedures, and the obsession with order and efficiency in general 
were transforming how business was done and how people spent their 
workdays. All of these changes, which more clearly articulated the lines 
of authority and responsibility in large organizations, allowed institu- 
tions to extend their reach and power. And now this quest for institu- 
tional hegemony was endorsed, even promoted, by the popular press. 

Wireless telegraphy, its use recently regulated by the federal govern- 
ment, would be transformed by the bureaucratization of American life, 
which was itself profoundly accelerated by World War I. The invention’s 
relationship to the lives of everyday, ordinary Americans would be ex- 
plained and promoted by a press more in tune with corporate America 
and the federal government than ever before. When Theodore Vail said 
Americans wanted to pursue a “common course of action,” he had not 
misread his audience: he had, in fact, anticipated the obsession with 
cultural consensus and the intolerance of divergent viewpoints which 
World War I would unleash in America. He also anticipated how the war 
years would transform radio from a device for transmitting navigational 
or commercial messages between specific senders and receivers to a tool 
for exerting political, economic, and cultural power. 

Radio changed in many important ways during these years, and 
many of the most dramatic changes were due to the establishment of 
corporate control over radio technology. In 1910, individual inventors 
and their companies still held the patent rights to the continuous wave 
components they had invented. Between 1912 and 1917, these rights 
were transferred to large corporations. 

AT&T was not the only company that had gained control of continu- 
ous wave technology. General Electric, after Fessenden’s departure from 
NESCO, found itself heir to the alternator, the transmitter that Alexan- 
derson had improved and made more powerful. Fessenden was no long- 
er interested in the radio-frequency alternator; once he broke with his 
backers, he abandoned wireless telegraphy and telephony. Thus, in 
1911, G.E. was left with a 2-kilowatt alternator for which it had no 
customers. Aiexanderson wished to pursue radio work and recognized 
that there were potential clients for G.E. apparatus. He interested his co- 
worker Irving Langmuir in testing and improving the audion. 32 Lang- 
muir, like his counterpart at AT&T, Harold Arnold, realized that the 
audion amplified more efficiently once it was converted to a high- 
vacuum tube. Langmuir patented the device, and Aiexanderson incorpo- 
rated it into what he regarded as a “complete system” for continuous 
wave transmission and reception. But G.E. and AT&T were very differ- 


• 252 • 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


ent companies: G.E. was primarily a manufacturing firm, supplying 
products to others, while AT&T operated its own communications net- 
work. While AT&T saw the wireless telephone as a potential com- 
petitor, G.E. did not. Thus, G.E. did not have the same internal incentives 
as AT&T did to stake its claim publicly to the technology. 

As a result, little radio work was done at G.E. between 1911 and 
1914. Alexanderson continued to press for further experimentation, and, 
after 1914, external events also worked to redirect the company’s atten- 
tion to wireless. Shortly after World War 1 broke out, England cut Ger- 
many’s transatlantic cables and imposed strict controls over its own cable 
traffic. Thus, there might now be a market in Europe and the United 
States for a wireless transmitter capable of regular transatlantic work 
which could provide an alternative to the cables. More importantly, the 
American Marconi Company in December of 1914 expressed interest in 
the alternator. This interest justified Alexanderson’s efforts to make the 
alternator more powerful and farreaching. Marconi inspected the alter- 
nator in the spring of 1915 and was impressed with its performance. 33 
The alternator was powerful, it emitted a high, distinctive pitch, and it 
was capable of covering great distances. In July the two firms signed a 
tentative agreement whereby G.E. would supply alternators to the Mar- 
coni companies. G.E. now had a customer for its alternator, and the 
Marconi companies were on the verge of acquiring their first continuous 
wave transmitter. This acquisition was by now critical to both the British 
and the American Marconi companies, for the American Marconi Com- 
pany’s dominant position in the marketplace belied its vulnerable tech- 
nological position. 

In 1912, American Marconi was the preeminent wireless company 
in the United States: it controlled virtually all of the country’s civilian 
ship and shore stations and handled the bulk of the country’s commercial 
and press messages. Press accounts of the Titanic disaster, in reaffirming 
the importance of intership and ship-to-shore wireless communication, 
never mentioned Fessenden or De Forest. The hero of the hour was 
Marconi, and he was once again legitimated as the true and only inventor 
of wireless. If anything seemed inevitable in the American wireless in- 
dustry in 1912, it was that American Marconi would continue to grow 
and consolidate its position, technically, organizationally, and politically. 
Yet this did not happen. Rather, from nearly the moment the Marconi 
Company vanquished its competitors in the American courts, it began its 
decline in the United States. 

After 1912, the Marconi Company of America sought to consolidate 
its position and more firmly entrench itself in American soil . In October of 


• 253 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


1913, Edward J. Nally, former Western Union messenger boy who had 
worked his way up through the telegraph business to become the vice- 
president and general manager of the Postal Telegraph and Cable Com- 
pany, resigned that position to become the president of American Mar- 
coni. 34 The company’s primary mission was to build several high-power, 
long-distance wireless telegraph stations in the United States capable of 
transoceanic message handling. Nally and Bottomley announced plans 
for a station in Massachusetts that would communicate with a sister 
station in Norway. Telegraph lines would connect the Massachusetts 
station to Boston and New York. 35 The company also began work on a 
receiving station in Belmar, New Jersey, and a transmitting station in 
New Brunswick which would communicate with Carnarvon, Wales. 36 
It also announced plans for a transpacific link between California and 
Hawaii. By this time, however, the technical evidence was in: only with 
continuous wave technology could truly reliable long-distance work be 
achieved. American Marconi simply lacked the technology necessary to 
implement its strategic vision. 

Marconi and his assistants had belatedly begun exploring wireless 
telephony, which relied on continuous wave transmission, in 1913 and 

1914. But the European war interrupted this work, and Marconi was 
forced to suspend his experiments with wireless telephony. On August 2, 
the British government took control of all wireless transmission, and the 
various British Marconi stations came under the control of the Admiralty 
or, in a few cases, the Post Office. The Marconi Company continued to 
operate the stations, but on behalf of the government. The Clifden-Glace 
Bay transatlantic circuit continued operating commercially, but priority 
was given to military messages. Research and development had to meet 
military rather than commercial needs. Government demands seemed 
both endless and urgent: thousands more operators; stations to intercept 
enemy transmissions; more stations installed with direction finders, 
which could determine the origins of enemy transmissions; portable 
wireless sets; wireless for airplanes and dirigibles; high-power, long- 
distance transmitters; and a host of other requests, large and small. When 
Italy declared war on May 24, 1915, Marconi returned home and served 
as a lieutenant of the army General Staff in charge of organizing the 
army’s wireless service. Experiments with continuous wave apparatus 
were now completely out of the question. 37 

While the Marconi Company clung to spark technology, one other 
company, much smaller than G.E. or AT&T, also gained control of impor- 
tant continuous wave technology. Formed in 1911 to exploit Poulsen’s 
arc transmitter, the Federal Telegraph Company of California offered a 


■ 254 • 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


commercial wireless service along the West Coast and between San 
Francisco and Honolulu. De Forest, needing a continuous wave transmit- 
ter, had used a version of the arc during his 1907 and 1909 voice broad- 
casts in New York with limited success. The man responsible for refining 
the arc transmitter and making it Federal’s most important asset was 
Cyril F. El well, an Australian-born engineer educated in California. 38 By 
1912, when Elwell first demonstrated the arc for navy officials, it was 
using less power to transmit over greater distances than the rotary spark 
gaps designed by Fessenden or Telefunken. At this point both Federal and 
the navy were using the arc to transmit dots and dashes. The navy’s 
successful experiments prompted it to abandon spark technology for 
major long-distance work and to embrace the newest continuous wave 
transmitter. Thus, the arc made Federal, a successful regional firm far 
away from the centers of power, a company of national importance. 

By 1914, a critical shift in the balance of power had occurred away 
from the Marconi companies and toward G.E., AT&T, and, to a lesser 
extent, Federal Telegraph. While outward appearances such as long- 
distance stations and volume of ship-to-shore business suggested Mar- 
coni’s firm control over radio in America, the distribution and control of 
patents told another story indeed. Marconi had failed to see, until it was 
too late, why developing continuous wave apparatus might be impor- 
tant. The failure was primarily intellectual, but it had severe economic 
consequences. As the switch from spark to continuous wave technology 
became inevitable early in the century, Marconi was without the requi- 
site apparatus. This made him, for the first time, dependent on American 
inventions and an American corporation, and after 1912, it was corpora- 
tions, not individuals, who controlled continuous wave technology. 

One of the tragedies of this transition from individual to institutional 
control over wireless was the way it affected the brilliant pioneer of 
continuous wave transmission, Reginald Fessenden. Just at the historical 
moment he had been impatiently waiting for — when customers (includ- 
ing his rival, Marconi, and his nemesis, the navy) realized, more than ten 
years after he did, that continuous wave transmission was vastly superi- 
or to intermittent spark transmission — he would get little credit. Just 
when the orders for continuous wave apparatus were coming in, when 
Marconi himself wanted exclusive rights to the alternator, Fessenden 
would receive no contracts. The spoils of all he had worked for were 
going to others. His work with wireless was now so permeated with 
feelings of bitterness and betrayal that experimentation became unbear- 
able for Fessenden. He enjoyed a brief moment of vindication in May of 
1912 when a jury awarded him more than four hundred thousand dol- 


■ 255 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


lars for the patent rights he had assigned to NESCO. NESCO appealed, 
and the next decision, in August of 1913, went against Fessenden. While 
he and his lawyers continued the battle with NESCO, now in receiv- 
ership, Fessenden explored other areas, including power transmission 
and storage, engine design for automobiles, and turbo electric engines for 
ships. In 1912 he became a consulting engineer for the Submarine Signal 
Company of Boston and developed his oscillator, which greatly ex- 
tended underwater signal transmission and reception. 39 He also devel- 
oped apparatus that would determine, through a submarine echo, the 
location and size of icebergs. This work stood him in good stead during 
the war, when the demand for submarine signaling and detection equip- 
ment skyrocketed. 

Although he was able to find other work, and to redirect his creative 
energies, Fessenden never regained the optimism or the technical daring 
that had characterized his early work with NESCO. Now he was more 
pompous, even imperious, a manner that failed to veil his deep depres- 
sion and his unremitting sense of persecution and paranoia. The biogra- 
phy written by his wife reveals much. Chapters covering the years be- 
tween 1911 and 1927 are little more than accounts of inventions unjustly 
credited to others but actually, according to Helen Fessenden, all in- 
vented much earlier by her husband, who received no credit. These 
chapters also describe tension between Fessenden and his new em- 
ployers, which was never Fessenden’s fault but was due to the duplicity 
and incompetence of others. Everyone was out to get him; no one could 
be trusted. Most pathetic is the story about the Medal of Honor awarded 
to Fessenden in 1921 by the Institute of Radio Engineers. 40 The medal 
was meant, in radio circles, to be a great honor, and Marconi was the 
1920 recipient. Fessenden came to suspect that Marconi’s medal was 
solid gold while his was only a plated imitation, so he sent it off to 
Washington to have it assayed. When his suspicions were confirmed, he 
returned the medal to the IRE. The institute had to launch an investiga- 
tion into the medals, and only after it convinced Fessenden that all the 
medals had been the same, that no slight had been intended, and that 
simple cost considerations mandated the medals be goldplate rather than 
solid would Fessenden take the medal back. Even gestures meant to 
honor, or simply flatter, now had for Fessenden dark, hidden motives 
that he felt compelled to expose. 

Of all those who worked with wireless in its formative stages, 
Fessenden was the most technically farsighted. When what he was most 
proud of in himself was not truly valued by others, but was, he believed, 
squandered for some fleeting and insignificant gain, he became irrepara- 


■ 256 • 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


bly hardened and cynical. While Fessenden worked in other areas, he 
continued to press for restitution for his patents. His claim was simple. In 
his earliest agreements with Given and Walker, he had assigned his 
patents to NESCO in exchange for a salary plus a fee that was to be paid 
out of first earnings. When he was fired, he had yet to receive this fee. It 
was irrelevant to him that Given and Walker had paid all his research, 
construction, and travel expenses, which by 1910 totaled over two mil- 
lion dollars. After the court cases he kept pressing NESCO, which was in 
receivership and unable to pay. Fessenden’s quest was to last fiften years, 
and the stress it produced took its toll on the inventor and his wife. Helen 
Fessenden recalled those days when her husband would ransack the 
house, collecting all the documentation he believed he needed to con- 
front the opposition: “Usually the strain was tense until he drove off 
with his case of papers, then I would find myself weeping into the 
breakfast dishes from sheer relief.” 41 

Once Fessenden left his company and filed suit, NESCO dramatically 
curtailed its operations. It remained an insignificant company doing little 
business, and its only assets were Fessenden’s patents. On November 28, 
1917, NESCO’s receivership came to an end and all its assets were 
transferred to a new company, the International Radio Telegraph Com- 
pany. International manufactured apparatus for the military during the 
war, but with the end of hostilities, its business declined and its main 
assets once again were the Fessenden patents. In 1920, Westinghouse, 
trying to challenge RCA’s control over radio, negotiated a deal with the 
International stockholders and gained control of the patents. After a short 
but intense competitive scramble between Westinghouse and RCA, the 
two companies reached an agreement in the spring of 1921 which made 
Westinghouse a partner in the corporate alliance known as the Radio 
Group and brought Fessenden’s patents to RCA. At this time, Fessenden 
decided to press RCA for his money. Early negotiations fell through, and 
he filed a sixty-million-dollar suit against RCA. Two-and-a-half years 
later, in March of 1928, Fessenden and RCA settled out of court for what 
his wife called an “inadequate amount”: half a million dollars. 42 Fes- 
senden retired to Bermuda, where he died in July 1932. 

Fessenden’s story epitomized what had happened to radio by the 
early teens. It was no longer the province of the independent inventor; 
now it was in the hands of several large-scale corporations. Yet it is 
important to emphasize that neither AT&T nor G.E. had at the time 
devised a long-term strategy for entering the radio communications busi- 
ness themselves. G.E. controlled the alternator, at that time a continuous 
wave transmitter with enormous potential. But G.E. wanted to sell the 


■ 257 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


machine, not use it to establish its own communications firm. AT&T’s 
acquisition of De Forest’s audion patents was as much a defensive move 
as anything. The company wanted the audion rights, first, to extend the 
reach of its wired network and, second, to prevent others from using 
wireless telephony to compete with Bell’s existing and expanding net- 
work. AT&T was not working toward establishing a wireless commu- 
nications business either. 

There was another institution, however, that was, after 1912, mov- 
ing very much in this direction: the U.S. Navy. Nothing had a greater 
impact on American radio during the teens than the navy’s increasingly 
proprietary attitude toward America’s wireless system. By 1912, several 
key naval officials began pushing for better integration of radio into naval 
strategy and operations. These men had a consistent and influential lead- 
er in Josephus Daniels, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of the navy from 
1913 to 1921. Daniels was an outspoken advocate of complete naval 
control of American wireless, and he missed few opportunities to con- 
vert that goal into an established fact. Naval control of American wire- 
less went through two stages during these years. The first stage, from 
1912 to April 1917, was marked by organizational and attitudinal 
changes within the navy. As the United States struggled to remain neu- 
tral during these years, the navy was charged with ensuring that the 
American ether was not used by any of the belligerents to further their 
own military goals. This assignment increased the navy’s institutional 
interest in and power over wireless transmitting and receiving. The 
second stage began once America entered the war, when naval control 
over American radio became complete. Throughout both stages Daniels 
worked to make this control permanent. 

When the navy had first tested wireless, its officers had proved 
unable to, and in many quarters uninterested in, fully integrating the 
invention into naval operations. The department’s decentralized struc- 
ture and the attitude of many navy men made the navy especially ill 
suited to manage this new technology. Yet several changes, both within 
and outside the navy, began to pave the way for a keener appreciation of 
radio’s value. For decades the various secretaries had recommended that 
the number of bureaus be reduced and their duties consolidated. While 
this much-needed reform was not enacted until World War II, in 1910 the 
Bureau of Equipment was abolished and its duties distributed among the 
remaining bureaus. 43 The Bureau of Steam Engineering, in existence 
since 1862, had long been the department’s center for engineering — first 
steam, and then electrical — and it was this bureau that assumed control 
of acquiring and installing radio in 1910. The Bureau of Steam Engineer- 


• 258 • 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


ing was responsible for designing, constructing, maintaining, and repair- 
ing the machinery on board naval vessels. It was not just a procurement 
bureau, it was a bureau actively involved in the building and successful 
mechanical operation of the ships. This bureau, with its strong engineer- 
ing tradition and greater influence within the fleet, provided a more 
propitious organizational niche for radio’s deployment. 

Most importantly, the Radio Act of 1912 required the navy to in- 
crease its radio activities. Naval radio stations now had to exchange 
messages with civilian ships if no commercial station was operating 
within a 100-mile radius. 44 As Secretary of the Navy G.V.L. Meyer 
observed in his Annual Report for 1912, “The radio work and expenses 
of the department will be largely increased. It will be necessary to mod- 
ernize and improve the apparatus of coast stations so that the commercial 
work may be successfully handled. . . . The added work will undoubt- 
edly prove an incentive to increased efficiency.” 45 To achieve this efficien- 
cy, the navy needed an office to coordinate and manage its new quasi- 
commercial service, and thus established the Naval Radio Service as part 
of the Bureau of Navigation. 

Improvements in transmitters between 1907 and 1912 reduced 
technical uncertainty and made the navy less wary of rapid obsolescence. 
John Firth, NESCO’s sales representative, had convinced the navy in 
1909 that with Fessenden’s new rotary spark transmitter, the depart- 
ment could begin planning a network of high-power, long-distance sta- 
tions between the continental United States and the Caribbean. Firth 
promised that Fessenden would deliver what De Forest had failed to 
when he worked in the “hellhole of wireless” during 1905. The first such 
station was to be located in Arlington, Virginia, close to the center of 
federal power; others were planned for the Panama Canal, the West 
Coast, and at various locations in the Pacific. Construction began in 1911, 
and early in 1913 Arlington went on the air. By this time, Cyril Elwell of 
Federal Telegraph had refined the arc transmitter and convinced naval 
officials to test it at Arlington and compare its performance with that of 
the rotary spark. As Elwell had maintained, the arc, a continuous wave 
transmitter, achieved distances the rotary spark could not come close to 
matching. 46 Furthermore, the arc was quieter, required less power, and 
was more reliable. The success of this demonstration marks the navy’s 
acceptance of continuous wave technology and its widespread adoption 
of the Federal arc. The West Coast firm was awarded contracts to equip 
the rest of the navy’s planned high-power stations with transmitters. 

Thus, by mid-1912, a new constellation of technical, legal, and orga- 
nizational changes confronted the Navy Department. But they did not 


• 259 - 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


ensure that radio would be efficiently integrated into naval operations. 
Radio, with the potential to establish new and strong channels of com- 
munication in the navy, had been forced to operate within a nineteenth- 
century organizational structure. Only the efforts of an officer with en- 
trepreneurial flair who was adept at exploiting unusual external pres- 
sures would compel this structure to yield to and be realigned by radio 
technology. Reviewing this realignment in some detail is an essential part 
of the radio story, for the newly consolidated and centralized navy of 
1917 would permanently alter the management of radio in the United 
States. 


• ■ ■ 

STANFORD C. HOOPER has been called the father of naval radio. 47 It is 
a title he enjoyed and believed he had earned. His version of the navy’s 
ultimate adoption of radio has the self-serving tone not uncommon to the 
autobiographies of people who were pioneers in their field, yet the 
record supports Hooper’s story of his efforts to integrate radio into naval 
operations. He achieved this integration at a propitious moment in naval 
history, but this does not detract from the adroitness and ultimate success 
of his strategy or methods. He was a shrewd man who read his organiza- 
tion — and the times — very well indeed. 

The son of a California banker, Hooper grew up in an environment 
that encouraged individual enterprise and initiative. When he was eight, 
his father built him a telegraph sender and key and taught Hooper the 
Morse Code. By the age of ten he was working part time for the railroad 
as a relief ticket agent and then relief telegraph operator. His seven years 
of experience with telegraphy provided a necessary foundation for his 
later radio work. He saw at a young age how a transportation and a 
communication network were integrated and operated cooperatively. In 
1901 his father arranged for Hooper to attend the Naval Academy, and at 
the age of fifteen he entered Annapolis and embarked on his career. 

After graduating from the Academy in 1905, Hooper served in vari- 
ous ships of the Pacific Fleet. He began to read about and tinker with 
wireless. Sometime between 1907 and 1908, Hooper put in a request for 
postgraduate training at the Naval Academy, specializing in wireless. 
This request was denied by Lieutenant Commander S. S. Robison, who 
believed “wireless would never be enough to warrant an officer giving it 
his full attention.” 48 Hooper continued to pursue this goal, trying various 
tactics and routes, and finally was sent to the Academy in 1910 as an 
instructor in electrical engineering, with wireless instruction added to his 
regular duties. Thus, not unlike many teachers, Hooper was to learn his 


• 260 • 


The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


subject matter shortly before teaching it to a class. But his assignment, as 
George Clark noted, marked a turning point in his career: “From then on 
he was in charge of a ‘radio division’ of the Navy, be it of the Department 
of Electrical Engineering at the Academy, or the Bureau of Steam En- 
gineering in Washington, or of the Fleet.” 49 

Lieutenant Hooper was one of the few officers in the navy who had 
experience as a wireless operator. By 1911, several commanders work- 
ing in the Bureau of Steam Engineering had begun to consider more 
seriously the use of radio for communicating between vessels when in 
battle formation, but they could not adequately implement this plan 
without firsthand knowledge of radio communication. Consequently, 
Hooper was assigned to develop and write up instructions for tactical 
signaling between battleships. His plan would be tested during spring 
target practice of 1912, when radio signals would accompany all visual 
signals. 

Another young officer who had had childhood experience with 
telegraphy had been assigned to report on the use of wireless during the 
autumn battle practice in 1911. Ensign C. H. Maddox assessed the tech- 
nical merits of the apparatus and analyzed wireless’s potential for tactical 
signaling. In his first report, he urged that wireless have its own set of 
tests rather than be tested in conjunction with target practice. Only then, 
he said, would wireless “get the full consideration that it deserves.” 
During target practice, he reported, “a wireless test is too liable to be 
relegated to the list of those things that can be slighted for the sake of 
possible increase of ‘hits per gun per minute.’ ” 50 

Maddox saw as the most immediate and pressing need “officers in 
the fleet who possess a thorough practical and theoretical knowledge of 
wireless and who are themselves expert operators.” “At present,” he 
reported, “the real head of the fleet’s wireless system is the enlisted 
operating force of the flagship.” He found these operators to be mediocre, 
in part because no specialization existed in the electrical force aboard 
ship. Wireless operators and dynamo tenders were often rotated be- 
tween these two jobs and, thus, there was “small chance for improve- 
ment.” He also recommended that the Atlantic Fleet have an officer in 
charge of the fleet’s wireless who would “systematize and control this 
important factor in naval efficiency.” He looked forward to the day when 
the navy would possess enough officers proficient in wireless for one to 
be assigned to “each division of the fleet, and eventually one to each 
battleship.” 

Reportedly, Hooper did not see Maddox’s report or recommenda- 
tions. In the spring of 1912, Hooper would reiterate these suggestions. 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


But Hooper, now twenty-six, was about four years older than Maddox, 
and was more experienced, higher in rank, and better connected. One 
important ally was Lieutenant Commander D. W. Todd, head of the 
Radio Division of the Bureau of Steam Engineering. Hooper’s observa- 
tions and report would obtain more sway as they passed through Todd. 

Prior to the April 1912 tests, Hooper devised a tactical signaling 
code and made several other specific recommendations. He urged that 
each ship’s wireless operator be brought up to the bridge from below 
decks during tactical signaling to reduce the delay between orders given 
by the captain and orders transmitted by the operator. Portable equip- 
ment would be installed quickly, the transmitting key on the bridge 
connected to the main transmitter below decks. This move demon- 
strated, physically and symbolically, the importance of tying radio di- 
rectly to the chain of command. 

Hooper’s tactical signals and set of instructions on general signaling 
procedures for the maneuvers were printed up and included in a booklet 
of general instructions written by Commander T. T. Craven, who was in 
charge of fleet training in the Division of Operations, Bureau of Naviga- 
tion. When the tests began, Hooper and Craven went to the flagship to 
observe results. Hooper monitored the radio signals, but he heard noth- 
ing all day. All the signaling was done by flag. At the end of the day, he 
visited several of the ships in the fleet to investigate what had happened. 
The only encouraging discovery Hooper made was that the Bureau of 
Steam Engineering had set up radio apparatus on the bridge of every ship. 
But no other steps in Hooper’s plan had been followed. “The Navy, as 
usual up to that date, did not take radio seriously,” he commented. “The 
commanding officers had handed the instruction pamphlet to the officer in 
charge of communications, but he, in every case not at all familiar with 
radio, did nothing more with it, probably not having faith in the ability of 
radio to do the work. In a few cases, the booklet had found its way down 
to the radio cabin, but the Chief had not had time to read and understand 
the scheme, nor did he have it expained to him.” 51 Thus, responsibility 
for testing radio signaling had been passed down to those in the organiza- 
tion who had no authority or accountability, particularly in the sphere of 
tactics or strategy. It was 1912, and in the navy, radio was still being 
treated as an afterthought. 

Hooper’s report reflected his disappointment. He criticized the of- 
ficers for not involving the operators in the tactical signaling process 
aboard ship, and urged that the skills of the operators be upgraded. 
Noting “Wireless is running away from us in certain regards,” Hooper 


• 262 ■ 


The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


also recommended that there “be an officer in charge of radio matters in 
the Fleet who [was] an expert operator.” 52 

Again, the spur for improvement came from the officers on shore, in 
Washington, not from ship’s commanders. Commander Craven, per- 
suaded by Hooper’s report, urged the chief of the Bureau of Navigation to 
add to the staff of the fleet commander in chief the position of fleet radio 
officer. Both Craven and his friend Todd recommended Hooper for the 
position, and in August of 1912, he became the navy’s first officer in 
charge of coordinating the use of radio at sea. Rear Admiral Hugo Os- 
terhaus “objected strenuously” to having such an officer on his staff, and 
then arranged that Hooper’s duties also include tactics and athletics. 53 
Having to organize and supervise boat races and boxing matches helped 
delay Hooper in his work and undermined the importance and prestige 
of his main task. Thus, despite the efforts of the navy’s equivalent of 
middle management, recalcitrant top executives were able to preserve 
the status quo. No fleet officer could institute full use of radio in naval 
operations alone. He needed allies on shore and within the fleet. Hooper 
and Maddox had recognized the need for a new organizational tier in the 
fleet: officers, not enlisted men, had to have control over radio. In the fall 
of 1912, Hooper recommended to Osterhaus that commanding officers of 
all major naval ships designate an ensign as radio officer and require him 
to become a proficient operator. Osterhaus followed Hooper’s suggestion 
and issued the order. 54 

This was Hooper’s first shrewd strategic move as fleet radio officer. 
Young officers would be less bound by naval tradition; unhindered by 
years of flag signaling, they would be more open to the new technology. 
They had, at this juncture in their career, little to lose and much to gain by 
becoming proficient in radio. Thus, there would shortly be dozens of 
officers just junior to Hooper in rank who were bound to his authority 
and competent with and sold on the new technology. He was arranging 
the beginnings of his network by creating an organizational cadre that 
would permit — and benefit from — full use of radio in navy operations. 

In 1913, Rear Admiral Charles J. Badger, who had served on the 
1902 Wireless Telegraph Board, became commander in chief of the At- 
lantic Fleet. His chief of staff, Commander Charles F. Hughes, was more 
sympathetic to Hooper’s goals than Osterhaus had been and recom- 
mended that Hooper be relieved of his duties as fleet athletic and tactical 
officer. Hooper was now free to concentrate completely on radio, and his 
attempts to incorporate radio more fully into the daily functioning of the 
fleet would be more sympathetically and seriously considered. 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


While the ensigns were learning about radio, Hooper had another, 
more difficult task. He had to upgrade the performance of the operators 
while simultaneously wresting control of fleet radio from them. Because 
wireless had been kicked down the naval hierarchy from its introduc- 
tion, it was now controlled almost entirely by the enlisted men. 

From rear admiral to ensign, few officers had considered wireless 
important, and therefore few sought to learn how to use it. But the 
bureaus (first Equipment and then Engineering) kept sending the instru- 
ments to the ships, and someone had to oversee them. The “technological 
buck” stopped with the enlisted men who worked under the broad 
heading of electrical engineer. At this level of the navy, wireless did not 
mean subversion of autonomy or tradition. On the contrary, an enlisted 
man who knew about radio gained some small distinction. He enjoyed a 
certain degree of autonomy — he could transmit whatever he wanted — 
and he often possessed privileged information. Most of the messages sent 
out by naval operators before 1913 were personal messages such as this 
one cited by George Clark: “Longing for you darling, and waiting for the 

fog to lift. Lieutenant ” 55 The ship’s operator also conversed 

with other naval and commercial operators in the vicinity and could 
eavesdrop on various conversations. 

As radio apparatus began to proliferate in the fleet, control of wire- 
less was often maintained by the chief engineer of the flagship. Use of the 
airwaves came to be dispensed by the chief as a privilege, a perquisite. 
Radio technology provided the chief and the operators with control and 
diversion, often denied aboard ship, and these men were not about to 
relinquish these two things easily. 

Hooper’s goal was to compel the operators to “use their station for 
nothing but official business, to make use of a military routine whose first 
requirement was obedience to orders, and to improve their operating 
ability.” 56 The fleet radio officer ordered that operators were only to send 
and receive official messages, only on official navy forms, and that person- 
al conversations were to stop. Operators responded to this reform by 
both ignoring the orders and denigrating Hooper over the air. Hooper, as 
a result, spent his evenings learning to distinguish the sound of each ship’s 
spark and the “fist” of each operator so he could ultimately determine 
which operators were violating his new regulations. He then devised a 
scheme he hoped would end all resistance. Admiral Badger authorized 
Hooper to send the following message to the commanding officer of any 
ship guilty of disobeying Hooper’s rules: “Your attention is invited to 
Fleet Regulations. . . . Your radio operator is disregarding instructions 
and is using unofficial language. Badger, C-in-C.” 57 By transmitting this 


• 264 • 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


message, which the operator had to deliver to his commanding officer, 
Hooper set the offending operator up for disciplinary action. The first 
operator who refused to acknowledge receipt of this message was court- 
martialed. 58 Through such methods, Hooper gradually began to enforce 
the discipline and obedience he needed. Now he had to build an efficient 
operating network from the bottom up which commanding officers at the 
top would eventually be convinced was indispensable. 

While the enlisted men had enjoyed control over radio until Hoop- 
er’s reforms, they had had no compelling need to be fast or efficient 
operators. Commanding officers had placed no premium on speed or 
accuracy, so why should the operators? They were not rewarded for 
making the technology work well for the organization or chastised for 
failing to do so. Hooper had to structure an incentive system that would 
give the operators a continuing interest in good signaling. He introduced 
a rating system whereby every operator would be labeled according to 
his level of proficiency. Linking performance to organizational rewards, 
Hooper also instigated sending and receiving competitions among the 
operators, with promotions as prizes. He began drilling the operators in 
learning and using his battle signal code. He standardized the number of 
operators on each ship — before this, one ship might have only one oper- 
ator while another had six. 

By 1913, Hooper had succeeded in having an officer on every ship in 
the fleet assigned to oversee the radio room. Removing control over radio 
from the enlisted men, who had no role in strategy and planning, and 
assigning control instead to a new managerial tier of young officers was 
probably Hooper’s most important reorganizational ploy as fleet radio 
officer. Hooper had realigned and disciplined the lower levels of the fleet 
hierarchy. He needed this tier of enlisted men, ensigns and lieutenants, to 
be efficient, coordinated, and obedient to his authority in order to im- 
press the men at the top levels that radio could be an invaluable tool for 
commanders. Hooper had recognized that before an organizational re- 
source could exist, and be perceived as a resource, men and “machines” 
had to be fully integrated at the lower levels. Only then could the top 
brass legitimize the system through successful and continued use of it. 

Hooper got his critical opportunity in 1913. Admiral Osterhaus 
“would not permit his ships to be maneuvered by radio and would only 
execute his signals by flaghoist.” 59 Admiral Badger, a younger officer, 
was more inclined to try radio. Sometime in 1913, Badger ordered that 
during one day’s exercises, all maneuvering would be handled by radio. 
For the first time, no flags were to be used at all. All of the commander in 
chief’s instructions were accurately relayed and carried out, and, for 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


radio, the maneuvers were a complete success. The next week a similar 
but unexpected test occurred. While steaming in Chesapeake Bay, the 
fleet hit a sudden squall, and visibility was reduced to zero: the flags 
were of no use. Radio had to transmit all instructions. The storm lasted 
for half an hour, and when it cleared all the ships could be seen in 
formation, exactly as they had been ordered. Tactical signaling by radio, 
done previously only on an experimental basis, increasingly became 
regular practice in the fleet. Luck had helped Hooper achieve an impor- 
tant breakthrough: commanders saw firsthand how radio could avert 
disaster. This was a major step toward gaining full acceptance of the new 
communications technology. 

Hooper and his allies had partially integrated wireless into the oper- 
ations of the fleet between 1912 and 1914, but the navy’s network of 
shore stations lacked systematic coordination, a deficiency the depart- 
ment began to address after the war broke out in Europe. Early in the 
war, in August of 1914, Hooper was ordered to Europe to observe the 
use of radio. In early 1915, he returned to Washington, where he served 
for two weeks in February with three other officers, all with radio 
experience, on a Radio Reorganization Committee. The committee con- 
centrated on the need to strengthen and better coordinate the navy’s 
coastal chain. Until 1915, each shore station communicated with ships at 
sea, listened for distress calls, and worked with the two stations adjacent 
to it along the chain. 60 Most of these installations were at the navy yards. 
The stations were under the control of the commandant of the yard, an 
officer with a multiplicity of responsibilities and concerns and little incen- 
tive to seek improvement in the use of radio. Unlike the radio waves 
from his station, the commandant’s influence was confined to the yard; 
he had no jurisdiction beyond it. Coastal radio could not be coordinated 
under this structure, whose fragmentation was reflected in the signaling 
setup of the chain. Messages were relayed from one station to the next 
along the north-south linkage. Thus, a message from Boston to Pensacola 
would be relayed many times. The stations were set up in series: if one 
link broke down, no transmissions were relayed beyond that point. 

Hooper, who had welded the fleet into a signaling unit and was 
fresh from his European trip, found such a situation antiquated and po- 
tentially dangerous. His colleagues agreed. Again he proposed a marriage 
between technical improvement and organization building. No one 
oversaw the coordination of the shore stations because no slot existed in 
the organization for this purpose, and no one had conceived of the airwaves 
as appropriate jurisdictional turf for an officer. Through the committee, 
Hooper proposed a series of high-power stations, preferably with a 


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The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


range of a thousand miles or more; these large areas were to be called 
naval communication districts, and each was to be under the supervision 
of a district communications officer. The existing coastal stations would 
have their power and apparatus upgraded and serve as a secondary 
signaling tier. Again, Hooper had devised a more centralized network, 
with more clearly articulated lines of authority leading from the bottom 
to the top of the hierarchy, and from the field units to the central office. 
When Secretary Daniels approved these recommendations in February 
of 1915, some elements of the plan were already in place. The navy’s 
high-power radio chain was under construction: Arlington was com- 
plete, the Canal Zone station at Darien was about to open, and construc- 
tion of stations in Pearl Harbor, San Diego, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, 
Guam, and Samoa was underway. 61 

In 1915, Congress enacted a bill creating the post of chief of naval 
operations. This officer would serve as the much needed liaison between 
the secretary and the bureau chiefs, gathering information on material, 
operations, and personnel which would help the secretary develop more 
informed and long-range strategy. Although the chief of naval operations 
was the ranking active officer of the navy, he was not empowered with 
direct authority over the bureaus. Nonetheless, this influential advisory 
position just above the bureaus and just below the secretary provided the 
department with “professional coordination and operational direc- 
tion.” 62 During the same year, the Naval Radio Service was reorganized 
and became the Office of Communications, which supervised telegraph, 
telephone, cable, and radio communcations. The service was moved out 
of the Bureau of Navigation and became an important office, its director 
reporting not to a bureau chief but to the chief of naval operations. 63 
These elevations in title, location, and organizational niche indicated 
how far up the hierarchy radio technology had traveled. The centraliza- 
tion and consolidation of radio operations, and their placement much 
closer to the center of power, ensured radio’s progress under naval aus- 
pices. Radio’s potential at the turn of the century had been fulfilled: 
changes had resulted in a more centralized structure at sea and on shore, 
and radio had become central to naval strategy. 

As the navy’s organizational structure came to resemble more close- 
ly the structure of successful civilian corporations, and as entrepreneurial 
officers like Hooper, Craven, and Todd came to preside over radio’s 
development, there was more cooperation between the navy and the 
corporate world. The management of radio in both spheres had become 
much more bureaucratized, orderly, and determined. And there was a 
greater appreciation by each sphere of what the other had to offer. After 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


1912, more naval officers realized how important radio might be to 
furthering geopolitical ambitions, and after August 1914 there was no 
doubt about the interrelatedness of the two. The navy needed reliable, 
powerful apparatus as well as more harmonious relations with the com- 
panies that controlled the technology. Navy officers and members of the 
wireless industry became much more friendly than they had been before. 
AT&T and the navy cooperated fully on the transcontinental wireless 
telephone tests, and Federal Telegraph became a major supplier of equip- 
ment to the navy. The only company deliberately left out in the cold was 
American Marconi, which many naval officials continued to regard as 
being controlled by foreigners and therefore as suspect. 

This military-corporate cooperation over radio, unthinkable as late 
as 1910, demonstrated how dramatically the management of radio had 
changed in five years. If one considers who controlled crucial patents in 
1910 and 1915, the transition from individual to institutional control 
becomes starkly apparent. Cooperation turned into partnership when 
America entered the war, and the military management of radio pro- 
vided powerful lessons in how the centralized control of radio might be 
achieved, and what, in both private and public spheres, such control 
might mean. 


WORLD WAR I provided a most favorable political and ideological cli- 
mate for the promotion of military wireless ambitions. When war broke 
out in Europe in August of 1914, U.S. reaction revealed how r embedded 
wireless telegraphy had become in the fabric of American policy and 
how important it now was to the implementation of that policy. The 
European war brought to the center of public attention how wireless 
was being perceived and how it was being used to exert political influ- 
ence. Wireless use was not confined to keeping ships’ captains informed 
on navigational matters or to transmitting news stories. With the advent 
of war, wireless became both a potential weapon and a tool for spread- 
ing propaganda. Trying to prevent the invention from being used in 
either of these capacities was what guided American wireless policy 
between 1914 and 1917. The other agenda guiding this policy, an agenda 
vigorously endorsed by Secretary Daniels and certain navy officials, was 
that the war be used finally to gain for the navy control over America’s 
wireless system. 

Daniels’s agenda was buttressed by public sentiment and presiden- 
tial actions. In 1914, most Americans, reacting to the war news with a 
mixture of disbelief, sadness, and disgust, wanted U.S. neutrality firmly 


• 268 • 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


established. President Wilson, who was presiding over a country of 
fiercely contested loyalties, urged that Americans try to be “impartial in 
thought as well as in action.” 64 On August 5, he issued his neutrality 
proclamation, which included specific regulations governing the opera- 
tions of wireless stations on American soil. He forbade the transmission 
or delivery of any unneutral messages and prohibited any stations “from 
in any way rendering to any one of the belligerents any unneutral service 
during the continuance of hostilities.” The secretary of the navy was to 
enforce these policies, and was authorized “to take such action on the 
premises as to him may appear necessary.” 65 

In August of 1914, the government’s major sources of concern re- 
garding wireless were the British and German high-power, long-dis- 
tance stations along the Atlantic coast. The Marconi Company had sta- 
tions at Portland, Maine, and Siasconset, Massachusetts; the Belmar- 
New Brunswick stations, which were still under construction, also be- 
longed to Marconi. The Germans had just completed two high-power 
stations in the United States which were capable of direct communica- 
tion with Germany. Telefunken had established an American subsidiary, 
the Atlantic Communications Company, which had built a station at 
Sayville, Long Island, which was in constant contact with its sister sta- 
tion in Nauen. A German firm known as HOMAG had built an equally 
powerful station at Tuckerton, New Jersey, meant to communicate with 
a station at Eilvese, near Hanover. 66 At this station in late January 1914, 
a message traveling 4,062 miles was received for President Wilson from 
Kaiser Wilhelm, who expressed the hope that wireless would become a 
new link between the two countries. 67 Because the German cables had 
been cut by the British at the outset of hostilities, this new link became 
critical. 

Through such powerful wireless stations, both the Germans and the 
British could monitor when and which ships were leaving the United 
States, send messages to their own military and merchant ships at sea, 
and stay in touch with their respective diplomatic and military leaders at 
home. As early as August 6, the New York Times printed allegations of 
breaches of neutrality. An amateur operator on Long Island monitored 
Sayville’s transmissions and turned his findings over to the government. 
Military orders in cipher originating in Berlin were allegedly received at 
Sayville and then dispatched to German cruisers in the Atlantic. 68 The 
Tuckerton station was also accused of receiving unneutral messages. On 
August 7, the Times printed allegations that German diplomats had used 
the Sayville station to communicate with the cruisers Dresden and Karls- 
ruhe. Relying on coded messages, they “guided the naval vessels, it is 


• 269 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


asserted, in their efforts to capture liners belonging to countries with 
which they are at war.” 69 To ensure that America’s neutrality was not 
violated by these stations, the navy dispatched censors to the foreign- 
controlled, long-distance stations; these censors were to be “in charge of 
the sending and receiving of messages.” 70 Secretary Daniels ordered that 
no cipher or coded messages could be transmitted or received at these 
stations. The ensign who served as censor first reviewed every outgoing 
message to check for unneutral information; once the censor cleared the 
message, one of two naval operators listened in to the transmission of it 
to make sure it was sent in its censored form. The navy men also 
monitored and censored all incoming messages. That the censors at the 
German stations were allowed to demand translations if necessary sug- 
gests that there was considerable room for error — and evasion. 

Neither the German nor the Marconi stations accepted the cen- 
sorship with equanimity. The Germans protested that the prohibition on 
coded messages was itself an unneutral act, for the British could send 
coded messages via their cables, a route denied the Germans. The Mar- 
coni Company protested the entire censorship apparatus, charging that 
the secretary of the navy had absolutely no legal authority over wireless 
transmissions, that the only government agency with any authority over 
wireless was the Department of Commerce, and that even it could not, 
under the 1912 act, restrict the content or destination of messages. John 
Griggs, president of the company, stated that the Marconi Company of 
America was an American company, not a foreign one, and thus should 
not be under surveillance. 71 

The government found the Germans’ position more compelling than 
the Marconi Company’s. Censorship would indeed continue, but the 
government would now allow coded messages, provided that the Amer- 
ican censors were given copies of the code books. No coded messages 
could deal with military matters, and the censors were under orders to 
keep the content of all messages confidential. 72 

At the same time, Daniels was sensitive to any opportunity that 
might consolidate the navy’s position. The owners of the German station 
at Tlickerton, it turned out, had failed to apply for a license before the 
war broke out. Because the station was unlicensed, it could not legally 
operate, and the government could no longer license it, went the argu- 
ment, because according to the 1907 Hague Convention rules governing 
wireless, to license a station owned by a belligerent would be a violation 
of neutrality. The government therefore closed down the station on Au- 
gust 24, 1914, an event announced on the front page of the New York 
Times. On September 5, Wilson announced through an executive order 


• 270 • 



■ The Rise of Military and Corporate Control • 

that the navy would take over one or more high-power stations on the 
Atlantic coast; four days later, the navy moved into Tuckerton, promising 
the Germans that their apparatus and the revenues collected during the 
navy’s tenancy would be returned at the close of hostilities. The navy 
would handle news and diplomatic and commercial messages. 73 The 
station was closed until late October while the navy removed the Ger- 
man Goldschmidt alternator and replaced it with one of the Federal 
Company’s arcs, by now the navy’s standard long-distance transmitter. 

Daniels apparently then set his sights on Sayville and the Marconi 
station at Siasconset. The Marconi Company, after filing a formal com- 
plaint with the government protesting the censorship procedures, took 
the case to court, charging that the navy had no legal authority to monitor 
messages. The government countered by charging, on September 10, that 
the Siasconset station, during the censor’s temporary absence, had vio- 
lated U.S. neutrality when it forwarded to a New York address an order 
from the British cruiser Suffolk for provisions and newspapers. The gov- 
ernment threatened to close the station. Griggs, outraged, asserted that 
the message was not unneutral, that only the Commerce Department 
had the authority to close a station for just cause, and that no such cause 
existed. 74 President Wilson responded on September 19, asserting that 
Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory had determined that Wilson had 
full authority to close the station if the company refused to comply with 
the censorship code. Daniels forwarded the details of the opinion to 
Griggs, stating that unless the Marconi Company offered an explanation 
for the Suffolk message and indicated its intention to abide by the govern- 
ment’s code, the Siasconset station would be shut down. 75 The Marconi 
Company did not respond, waiting instead for its day in court. On Sep- 
tember 24, Daniels ordered the Marconi Company’s most important 
American station closed. Two weeks later, the company’s suit was 
thrown out of court when the judge ruled that the court lacked jurisdic- 
tion over the case. 76 Later in October, the government accused the Mar- 
coni Company’s Honolulu station of handling unneutral messages. This 
time the company apologized and vowed this would not happen again. 77 
Daniels did not allow the Siasconset station to reopen until January 17, 
1915. 

On April 23, 1915, headlines on the front page of the New York 
Times announced “Germans Treble Wireless Plant.” A new, 100- kilo- 
watt alternator replaced the 35-kilowatt quenched spark gap, and a new 
aerial consisting of three 500-foot towers was erected. Noting ominously 
that the change was made “quietly, almost overnight,” the Times re- 
ported that all of the new apparatus had been manufactured in and 


• 271 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


shipped over from Germany, and that it required “six large freight cars” 
to bring the equipment to Sayville. Emphasis on the physical size and 
power of the machinery gave the article a tone of uneasiness, even 
paranoia. The story had been leaked to the paper by an unidentified 
naval officer. The new equipment, according to the Times, would trans- 
form Sayville into “one of the most powerful of the transatlantic commu- 
nicating stations in this part of the world,” The story observed that the 
new plant had not yet been licensed by the Department of Commerce, 
but that the license undoubtedly would be granted as soon as the station 
was ready for operation. 78 

However, this was the grisly spring of 1915, when, increasingly, 
civilian citizens of neutral countries were becoming victims of the war. 
On May 7, at 2:30 in the afternoon, while many of its passengers were 
finishing their lunch, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk without 
warning by a German U-boat. There were 1,959 people on board, in- 
cluding 188 Americans. The Germans, reported the press, made no effort 
to try to rescue survivors. Only 761 people survived; 1,198 died, 124 of 
them Americans. Fifty babies younger than one year and more than 100 
others less than two years old were killed. 79 The outrage the incident 
provoked crystallized pro-Allied and even pro-interventionist sentiment 
in some sectors of the country and raised sharp suspicions about German 
activities in the United States. How did the U-boat know exactly where 
to find the ship? Some suspected wireless. The Berne correspondent of 
the Morning Post cabled that, in Germany, the sinking of the ship had 
been expected: “There is no doubt that the German Admiralty received a 
wireless message from New York, giving the date of the Lusitania’s 
sailing, and that a number of submarines were told to torpedo her at any 
cost.” 80 Others charged that the Sayville station must have been involved 
somehow and that an investigation was in order. 81 Given that most 
Americans, despite the Lusitania, still wanted to avoid entering the war, 
preserving U.S. neutrality and preventing belligerents from using the 
country as a base of military operations became even more important. 

While Wilson pursued a diplomatic solution to the crisis, Sayville 
continued to operate as before. Then, on June 30, huge headlines an- 
nounced “Twenty or More Americans Lost when Germans Sink the 
Armenian : Navy May Seize Sayville Wireless.” The subheadlines read 
“Officers Think German Station May Send Messages to Submarines” and 
“Plant under Suspicion.” Now the government suspected that seemingly 
innocent sounding messages, phrased in “plain English or German, were 
in reality in a cipher code and contained military information that would 
be useful to European belligerents.” 82 Officials noted that, often, citing 


• 272 • 


The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


static interference, Sayville and Nauen requested that messages be re- 
peated; now it was believed that these repetitions embodied some sort of 
code. The Providence Journal claimed it had been monitoring Sayville for 
months and was convinced that the station was “nothing but an adjunct 
to the German spy system.” 83 Wasn’t Professor Vennick, the German 
cipher code expert at Sayville, still an officer of the German Marine 
Reserve? Rumors and suspicion fed off each other. Reports circulated of 
secret wireless stations and secret submarine bases off the coast of Maine 
which would allow the Germans to attack ships closer to the American 
shore. 84 There was also supposedly a huge German spy ring, in which 
wireless played a critical role. The Literary Digest, citing several sources, 
reported that the Germans were “working toward the formation of a 
[wireless] network enclosing the whole world.” This network consist- 
ed, in part, of “a German-controlled wireless station in each state of the 
Union, besides four stations in Mexico and sixteen distributed over South 
America, all under direct orders from Sayville.” 85 

The navy could hardly have had a more favorable political climate in 
which to justify its takeover of Sayville. At this time, navy officials dis- 
played a newfound sophistication in dealing with the press. Here they 
were leaking stories to the Times and exploiting international incidents 
to further the Navy Department’s institutional ambitions. Front-page 
headlines on July 9 reassured readers that government control of Sayville 
began that day. The official explanation was that the German upgrading 
of the station made Sayville, in reality, a new station, and since it was 
controlled by one of the belligerents, the station could not be issued a 
new license without violating neutrality. Contending that Sayville had 
been operated in part by German military forces and that the American 
money involved in the Atlantic Communications Company was “infini- 
tesimal,” the navy maintained it had little choice but to assume control. 
At first all the German employees were to be replaced immediately by 
navy men, but since the Germans were familiar with the apparatus, they 
were temporarily retained. 86 However, the German employees’ duties 
were restricted to those necessary to maintaining the apparatus; the 
Germans were no longer allowed to handle messages. 

In September the Literary Digest, citing an article printed in the 
Electrical Experimenter, revealed that Charles Apgar, an amateur oper- 
ator from Westfield, New Jersey, had helped the Secret Service obtain 
evidence of neutrality violations at Sayville. The article failed to mention 
that the patriotic Apgar was also an employee of the Marconi Company. 
Apgar, who used an audion and the regenerative circuit, monitored the 
Sayville transmissions and often heard Nauen, as well. In addition, Ap- 


• 273 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


gar had devised a method of recording incoming wireless messages on 
phonographic wax records; these records were later replayed and their 
contents carefully transcribed. The results were sent off to the Secret 
Service. The records allegedly confirmed that “secret messages, in code 
and otherwise, were . . . sent along with regular censored messages” by 
the insertion of extra dots or by transmitting messages at an abnormal 
pace. 87 Secretary Daniels held up the Sayville incident as a dangerous 
example of the perils of private ownership of wireless. In his Annual 
Report for 1916, Daniels asserted: “It is becoming increasingly evident 
that no censorship of radio stations can be absolutely effective outside of 
complete government operation and control.” He continued: “The gov- 
ernment must in the end follow the lead of almost all other governments 
and obtain control of all coast radio stations and operate them, in con- 
junction with naval stations, for commercial work in times of peace.” 88 

Navy management of the two German transatlantic stations may 
have curtailed the transmission of coded, unneutral messages, but it did 
not help determine which kinds of messages were unneutral and which 
were not. By the fall of 1916, the United States had weathered several 
diplomatic crises over Germany’s use of submarine warfare, and tension 
over the issue remained high. In early October, a German U-boat docked 
briefly at Newport, Rhode Island, and then put out to sea. On October 9, 
the submarine sank six ships off the coast of New England, near Nan- 
tucket. It turned out that the New York Herald station, as part of its news 
bulletin service, sent out a wireless message warning all ships in the 
vicinity that the German submarine was operating off the Nantucket 
lightship. The navy maintained that sending such a message constituted 
an unneutral act, because a British cruiser could have picked up the 
message and used the information to locate and sink the submarine. The 
navy installed censors at the Herald station. Navy officers visited other 
major commercial stations along the north Atlantic coast to “remind” the 
operators to preserve neutrality. The New York Times despaired in an 
editorial that such stations could not “be neutral without being un- 
neutral.” 89 Sending the message helped the British; not sending it would 
have helped the Germans. Either way, the Herald station could not be 
truly neutral. 

On February 4, 1917, when Wilson broke diplomatic relations with 
Germany, all employees of German extraction, including those who 
could not be vouched for with certainty, were dismissed from Sayville. 
All the Germans at Tuckerton were dismissed, as well; a few months 
later they were arrested, as was Dr. Karl Frank, head of Atlantic Com- 
munications. 90 The detention of these men reflected the widespread fear 


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The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


of German spy rings which had been raised to near hysterical levels after 
publication of the Zimmerman Telegram on March 1, 1917. Their arrests 
anticipated the repressive measures that the war would spawn. 

Through censorship and then takeover, the government sought to 
prevent U.S. -based radio stations from being used as weapons of war. 
More difficult to control was use of the airways for propaganda purposes. 
Reported the press in November 1914: “The spread of official news by 
wireless broadcast over the globe for anyone who can pick it up is a new 
method of political propaganda which has been introduced through the 
European War.” 91 With the German cables cut, the German chancellor 
had begun to use wireless during the second week of the war to present 
Germany’s “side of the case” to the American people. Such messages 
were, first and foremost, intended for the American press, but they also 
reached British, Belgian, and French stations and thus served well as 
psychological warfare. They also reached all those American amateurs. 
The French decided to send “military and political bulletins on the pro- 
gress of events from the French point of view from their station on the 
Eiffel Tower.” The British Marconi Company followed suit, “disseminat- 
ing British bulletins composed by the Foreign Office.” 92 The airwaves 
were now filled with political debate and with conflicting views of the 
war, all of them designed to sway public opinion. One British citizen saw 
a real danger in the broadcasting of Germany’s “false versions of war 
occurrences” and wondered whether Britain shouldn’t try to jam these 
transmissions. At the very least, he thought, the Allies should “coun- 
teract the effect of this ‘news’ ” so neutral countries would recognize that 
“Germany was a common danger and a common enemy to the whole 
civilized world.” 93 

Once the United States entered the war, the American press, es- 
pecially newspapers and magazines published in New York and else- 
where in the Northeast, where pro-British sentiment was strongest, 
began to view the ether less as an exciting, mysterious realm or as a 
resource whose use had to be regulated to ensure safety at sea. Now it 
was clear that the ether constituted national territory, in which Ameri- 
cans had political and international rights and prerogatives, and which 
had to be defended as staunchly as the shores. As the ether became 
militarized by the war, press coverage increasingly reflected military 
concerns. Stories revealed fear and resentment: the Germans, from their 
secret stations, were using our ether to further their military ends. The 
stations were hidden, hard to locate, and highly dangerous because, it 
was alleged, they sent orders to U-boats and coordinated spy plots on 
land. How dare the Germans use our ether to subvert our national goals 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


and advance their own? Implicit in the press accounts was the fear that if 
foreigners with political and, particularly, military agendas gained access 
to the ether, they could use this power to ensnare and lead public opin- 
ion. The military and the press got a taste of what it was like when the 
ether was used by one country to convey its beliefs and political goals to 
another. While American government officials may have found the taste 
bitter, they also thought the recipe worth duplicating. 

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered the Great War. Under 
section three of the 1912 Radio Act, President Wilson was authorized “in 
time of war or public peril or disaster” either to close down private radio 
stations or to place these stations under the control of “any department of 
the government, upon just compensation to the owners.” Consequently, 
on April 7, all radio stations in the United States, except those already 
under army control, were taken over by the U.S. Navy. Fifty-three com- 
mercial stations, most of them formerly operated by American Marconi, 
were added to the naval communications network, and another twenty- 
eight commercial stations were closed. 94 Now the navy presided over a 
national and international radio network. 

The navy takeover of America’s wireless network gave Daniels and 
other like-minded officials the control over radio they had so fervently 
sought. Navy intervention in the marketplace after April 1917 was swift 
and decisive. The Navy Department’s technical needs and organizational 
imperatives were forcefully imprinted on civilian suppliers. The navy 
required increased numbers of efficient and sturdy transmitters and re- 
ceivers, as well as portable sets. Although radio was a “two-edged 
weapon,” because messages sent by radio were not secret and could be 
monitored, it was nonetheless widely used during the war. Radio com- 
munication was essential to naval operations, and portable sets were 
used in the trenches. Radio also provided communication between air- 
ships and ground bases. To provide all this apparatus in time, rapid pro- 
duction, rapid integration, and centralized coordination were essential. 
During the war, the navy controlled the design, purchase, installation, 
and upkeep of all government radio except the army’s. This centraliza- 
tion led to standardization of apparatus, the navy’s long-sought goal, and 
better control over suppliers, rate of production and delivery, and “com- 
petition” from other agencies needing radio. For example, while there 
had always been several suppliers of most radio components, the 
Crocker- Wheeler Company enjoyed a near-monopoly in the production 
of motor-generators. When demand increased during the war, Crocker- 
Wheeler was deluged with orders from various companies demanding to 
be supplied immediately because of war contracts. Stanford Hooper 


• 276 • 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 



U.S. Signal Corps recruits training to become wireless operators 
during World War I. 


intervened and set up a schedule for production and delivery based on 
the navy’s needs. This incident prompted Hooper to view production 
more as a corporate executive would: he wanted to ensure that he had at 
least two sources of supply for whatever he might need. He demanded 
that Crocker- Wheeler turn its blueprints over to General Electric. Failure 
to do so could mean government takeover of Crocker- Wheeler. In the 
face of this threat, Crocker- Wheeler naturally compromised, suggesting 
the Triumph Electric Company as second supplier . 95 

Naval officials also contrived to eliminate competition over the lim- 
ited output of radio equipment. Hooper learned of a plan to build a new 
merchant fleet, to be called the Emergency Fleet Corporation. He saw 
this fleet as a potential competitor in purchasing, and he feared that 
civilian (and in his view inexperienced) purchasers would be willing to 
pay more for radio apparatus and thus both raise prices and deprive the 
navy of needed equipment. He intervened even before construction be- 
gan and persuaded the chief engineer of the Emergency Fleet Corpora- 
tion to let the navy supply it with radio . 96 

Because of the great demand for radio, American companies produc- 


■ 277 • 


INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


ing radio apparatus, such as General Electric, Western Electric, De Forest, 
and AT&T, began to enjoy navy patronage. One of the American com- 
panies’ major competitors, the Germany company Telefunken, would 
obviously no longer be supplying the navy. A government-imposed pa- 
tent moratorium instructed all suppliers to make use of the best compo- 
nents, no matter who owned the patent. The government guaranteed to 
protect all suppliers against infringement claims and encouraged the in- 
ventors not to be oversensitive to relatively free use of their apparatus 
during the national emergency. Under this arrangement, with the in- 
ventors and radio companies concentrating less on marketing strategies 
and litigation, and more on research and development, significant ad- 
vances in continuous wave technology were achieved. Civilian-military 
cooperation produced apparatus more ideally suited to the navy’s special 
needs. 

The symbol and centerpiece of this cooperation was the 200-kilo- 
watt Alexanderson alternator at the Marconi station in New Brunswick. 
Negotiations between the Marconi Company of America and General 
Electric had begun in 1915, and by early 1917, G.E. had agreed to install 
an alternator at the Marconi Company’s New Brunswick station. 97 By 
March of 1917, a 50-kilowatt machine was in place, just in time for the 
navy takeover. Navy officials were highly impressed with the alternator, 
which surpassed the synchronous spark and even the arc transmitter in 
its ability to maintain regular transatlantic communication with Europe. 
Although the alternator failed to provide constant twenty-four-hour 
communication, it nonetheless represented a major technological leap in 
clarity of signal and distance achieved. Its high, piercing signal was heard 
throughout Europe. But the navy wanted continuous twenty-four-hour 
service and urged Alexanderson to complete as soon as possible the 200- 
kilowatt machine he was working on. That alternator, which was in- 
stalled in September of 1918, transformed New Brunswick into the 
government’s flagship radio station. New Brunswick quickly was desig- 
nated to handle most of America’s radio communication with Europe. 

Several other components were dramatically improved during the 
war years. Without a doubt, the most important of these was the vacuum 
tube. Although the first critical steps in refining the tube as a detector, and 
then using it as an oscillator, had been taken prior to the war, it was in the 
urgent, heady, and litigation-free environment of 1917 and 1918 that the 
tube’s full potential was realized. By the end of the war, the vacuum tube 
had become a much more sensitive, rugged, reliable, and long-lasting 
detector of radio waves. In addition, it was being used as a small, rela- 
tively inexpensive, but not yet powerful generator of radio waves. 


• 278 • 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


Aerial construction was revolutionized, as well; for radio reception, 
high poles supporting seemingly endless lengths of wire were replaced 
by what was called the loop. The loop resulted from tests conducted by 
Roy Weagant, chief engineer for the American Marconi Company, who 
was working to reduce static interference. Because the loop was small 
and adjustable, it could be turned to the best direction for receiving and, 
in the process, overcome static interference. 98 

By 1918, Daniels wrote, almost complacently, “The Navy occupies 
a strong position in the commercial radio field on account of efficient 
service rendered, and I think presages the way for making this service 
entirely governmental.” 99 The year had proved critical to the strategy for 
postwar naval control of radio. The U.S. Navy had never enjoyed cordial 
relations with the Marconi Company; the war years turned friction into 
deep suspicion and hostility. The Marconi Company would always, in 
the eyes of navy officials, be a British company. With nationalism, even 
xenophobia, coursing through official arteries, the thought of foreigners 
enjoying a virtual monopoly of something so critical as the nation’s wire- 
less communication network was intolerable to the navy men. At times 
it seemed the navy’s obsession with driving the Marconi Company out of 
America was even stronger than the navy’s desire to control America’s 
wireless system. Navy officials now appreciated the distinctiveness and 
superiority of American radio technology, and any prospect of the Mar- 
coni Company gaining access to that technology produced an immediate 
response. Lieutenant Commander George C. Sweet, head of the Shore 
Section of the Radio Division in the Bureau of Steam Engineering, 
learned that the Marconi Company had offered to purchase Federal Tele- 
graph’s patents and physical assets for $1.6 million. 100 He brought this to 
Secretary Daniels’s attention and urged that the navy make Federal a 
comparable offer. This the navy did, and on May 15, 1918, the Navy 
Department bought out Federal Telegraph. Six months later, the depart- 
ment purchased from American Marconi its low-power ship and shore 
stations for $1.4 million. Thus, by November 11, 1918, when the war 
ended, there were only three important features of American wireless 
the navy did not control: the Marconi long-distance stations, the patents 
on vacuum tubes and G.E.’s alternator. There were other important 
patents, privately held, that the navy did not own. Nonetheless, Secre- 
tary Daniels had reason to believe that postwar naval control was inev- 
itable. From his vantage point, the navy had presided over America’s 
wireless communications with no small distinction. In the navy’s cus- 
tody, radio apparatus had become more standardized, powerful, and 
efficient. The production and distribution of radio apparatus had been 


■ 279 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


highly coordinated. The navy had prevented a foreign-contolled firm 
from acquiring the Federal Telegraph Company; government ownership 
would keep other critical American technology out of foreign hands. 
Basically, the navy’s wireless strategy both just before and during the 
war had given it de facto control over radio, which, officials hoped, 
would argue in favor of extending de jure control. To reverse the trend 
seemed to Daniels foolish and unnecessary. 

Another argument for military control was the extent to which such 
control had furthered national political and diplomatic goals during the 
war. Daniels was proud to report in 1918 that the Naval Communication 
Service was “cooperating with the State Department and the Commit- 
tee on Public Information in the broadcasting of information of advantage 
to the United States to all parts of the world by high-power radio.” Each 
night the navy broadcast a program titled “Home Stuff” which included 
news items from many American cities. Daniels reported, “This dispatch 
is received simultaneously in France and England, and is posted in all 
Y.M.C.A. huts and other places where our men in foreign service congre- 
gate. It is their daily home paper.” 101 Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points 
speech of January 8, 1918, and his message to the German people the 
following September were both broadcast to Germany from the New 
Brunswick station. Both of these speeches included a rejection of the 
German form of government, which was “autocratic” and did not truly 
“represent the German people,” as well as the suggestion that Germany 
adopt a political system more like that of the United States. The presi- 
dent, the CPI, and the navy — all had taken advantage of government 
control of radio to use the airwaves to extend America’s ideological 
influence. Those advocating permanent naval control of radio argued that 
government control over the flow of information had made it possible for 
the United States to be regarded, in 1918, as the moral leader of the West. 

Just after the armistice, Daniels began coordinating his plan to intro- 
duce legislation that would place America’s wireless systems perma- 
nently under the navy’s control. He was motivated by his strong belief 
that such a strategically important method of communications — it linked 
the U.S. government with other governments and provided the only 
communication between the naval shore command and the fleet — had to 
be controlled by the navy. Reviewing the navy’s impressive management 
of radio during the war years, he was convinced that naval control 
would result in the most efficient and technically progressive wireless 
system in the world. Daniels was right to take pride in the navy’s war- 
time supervision of radio: considerable organizational and technological 
progress had occurred. But he was thinking about the issue too narrowly. 


■ 280 ■ 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


After the war, Congress and the public were not considering govern- 
ment control of wireless; they were assessing government control of 
private industry in general. Thus, they focused not on the happy results 
surrounding wireless, but on the rather unfortunate outcome of govern- 
ment management of other public utilities. 

During the war, the government had taken over the country’s tele- 
graph, telephone, and cable systems. A brief review of how the Bell 
system and its customers fared under such control sheds light on postwar 
animosity toward government ownership of public utilities. Prewar agi- 
tation for nationalizing the country’s telephone system was based on the 
belief that government control would bring a reduction in rates. Yet 
shortly after federal takeover of the Bell system, which occured in July of 
1918, the government found itself compelled to raise rates, a move that 
came as a most unpleasant surprise to consumers. Long-distance rates 
increased by 20%. Even given wartime inflation, the highest inflation 
since the Civil War, the increases impressed the public as much too high. 
In addition, the government instituted a service-connection charge that 
new subscribers had to pay for the physical installation of their phones. 
The Bell companies had been trying to impose such a charge for years but 
had been turned down repeatedly by local utilities commissions. To 
many, then, government control of the Bell system was considerably 
worse than private management. It produced an unregulated monopoly 
that could completely disregard its customers and impose whatever rates 
it chose. Adding insult to injury was the revelation that these rates had 
not generated profits; under government ownership, Bell operations 
showed a deficit of more than thirteen million dollars, nine million of 
which was repaid by the U.S. Treasury. 102 

Other public utilities fared no better. The government had also taken 
over America’s railroads, with similarly disastrous results. Secretary of 
the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo became director-general of the 
federal Railroad Administration, and to him no price was too great to pay 
to keep the railroads running. He authorized a major pay raise for the 
workers and paid for it through dramatic rate increases imposed on the 
public. 103 Even progressive leaders, who had thought government con- 
trol of the railroads would be a great reform, were disillusioned by the 
government’s mismanagement. The railroad controversy was widely 
discussed in the popular press and fueled a general and heated debate 
about the merits of government control of any private industry. This 
debate affected the future management of radio, as well. 

On November 24, 1918, Congressman J. W. Alexander introduced a 
bill endorsed by both Daniels and Wilson which would give the navy 


281 • 


INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


permanent control over America’s wireless system. Alexander was 
chairman of the committee to which the bill would be referred, the 
House Committee on Merchant Marines and Fisheries. Under the plan, 
the navy would buy the remaining sixteen American Marconi stations it 
had failed to acquire during the war. “Just compensation” would be 
made for these stations. Daniels issued a statement justifying the pro- 
posal. He maintained that prior to the war, none of the private companies 
had been able to “make an adequate return and in most cases no profit 
has been made except through the sale of stock.” No profit was made, 
argued Daniels, because radio required a complete monopoly to be re- 
munerative. He maintained that it was interference that made monopoly 
a necessity. He exploited Wilsonian rhetoric to package the proposal in 
the most persuasive language: “At this time, when most of the world is to 
be made over, when the United States is fostering the beginnings of a 
great merchant marine, whose servant radio-telegraphy is, and when the 
American news and American viewpoint are to be disseminated 
throughout the nations, . . . the greatest good to the people of the United 
States as a whole will accrue to them from well-regulated communica- 
tions ... at reasonable rates and without interference.” 104 

Daniels, however, had misread public opinion and failed to appreci- 
ate that under the prevailing political climate, Americans w'ould react 
against government ownership as a policy, and would not make distinc- 
tions between specific communications systems when it came to govern- 
ment control. He also failed to grasp the significance of the recent con- 
gressional elections. In November 1918, the Democrats lost control of 
Congress. The Republicans, eager to break free of the harness that had 
bound them together with the Democrats during the war, exploited the 
frustrations many Americans had felt with wartime control of private 
industry. Daniels was an excellent target for opposition attacks, as the 
Navy Department had endorsed postwar government control of tele- 
phone, telegraph, and cables, as well as wireless. 

On December 12, when Daniels appeared before Merchant Marines 
and Fisheries to testify on behalf of the bill, he found “an atmosphere of 
antagonism” toward him and his proposal. Daniels, it turned out, had 
proposed a similar bill in 1917 which would have provided the navy 
with the funds to purchase private wireless stations outright. The com- 
mittee at that time refused to report the bill, considering purchase unnec- 
essary since the navy already enjoyed complete control over the stations 
during the war. It is not difficult to imagine the committee members’ 
indignation when they learned that Daniels had then taken money from 
general navy appropriations to buy the Federal Telegraph Company and 


■ 282 • 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


the Marconi shore stations. The Times reported that Congressmen Ed- 
munds and Greene assailed Daniels and charged that he had exceeded his 
authority in making the purchases. Congressmen never like having their 
authority flouted, and Daniels’s failure to appreciate this doomed an 
already difficult case. 

E. J. Nally, vice-president and general manager of American Mar- 
coni, and John Griggs, the company’s president, testified before the com- 
mittee on December 17. Not surprisingly, the firm was “unalterably 
opposed” to the bill, and Griggs confidently told the press he doubted the 
bill would make it out of committee. Nally and Griggs released figures for 
the years 1914—17 showing the company’s profits, to counter the navy’s 
charge that no private firm had been financially successful. During their 
testimony, they emphasized the risks that had accompanied the firm’s 
research and development, risks assumed by the company’s twenty- 
three thousand stockholders, who had received only two dividends in 
sixteen years. The payment of further dividends had been interrupted by 
the war. Now, asked Griggs and Nally, “when success was in sight,” was 
Congress going to sanction government confiscation? Such an act, ac- 
cording to Griggs, would “be clearly against the interests of the public” 
and would also “destroy all the hopes” of the company’s stockholders. 
The Marconi men also charged that with the navy in control of wireless, 
“a permanent censorship would be established on commercial and 
newspaper messages.” 105 Government censorship during the war, es- 
pecially by Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson, had been highly 
capricious and heavy-handed, and had become increasingly controver- 
sial. Suggesting that such control over information might persist after the 
war added a valuable inflammatory element to the Marconi company’s 
position. Nally and Griggs were joined by representatives of the amateur 
operators, including Hiram Percy Maxim, who deluged congressmen 
with letters of opposition and lobbied vigorously against the bill. 

On January 16, 1919, the committee tabled the bill, and its members 
began circulating their antagonism toward Daniels and his proposals 
throughout the House of Representatives. One committee member, Con- 
gressman Fredrick W. Rowe of New York, urged that the House instruct 
the attorney general to force the navy to sell the Federal Telegraph and 
Marconi properties back to their owners. 106 Two weeks later, Con- 
gressman James Mann attacked Daniels in the House, “saying the Secre- 
tary had violated the law and ‘ought to be impeached.’ ” 107 One week 
after this suggestion, Congress amended the general Naval Appropria- 
tions Bill specifically to prevent Daniels from using any of the appropria- 
tions to acquire radio systems. The sponsor of the amendment said the 


■ 283 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


purchase of Federal and the Marconi stations had “brought down a storm 
upon the department.” 108 

Publicly, Daniels remained undaunted. In July of 1919 he ap- 
proached Congress again, this time proposing that all navy stations be 
allowed to handle commercial messages. He sought to portray the navy 
as the selfless servant of American business. “The ability to transact 
business depends on communications,” he wrote, adding that the navy 
had the transatlantic and transpacific stations to offer a reliable alter- 
native to the cables. He was, of course, trying to keep the navy’s long- 
distance stations operating as commercial stations to forestall, and, he 
hoped, prevent, the Marconi Company from regaining its foothold in 
transoceanic radio. 109 

A New York Times editorial offered succinct and pointed reaction to 
Daniels’s latest ploy: “Not for any temporary and not for any permanent 
cause, or merely assumed cause, should the government be allowed to 
put its bungling and paralyzing hand upon private business.” The paper 
believed that under the proposal, the government would become “a 
potential censor and muddler of business messages.” Declaring that “the 
country does not pine for nationalization,” the editors noted sarcastically, 
“The people know how beneficiently the government inserted itself into 
telegraph and telephone and cable management. They await anxiously 
the hour when the railroads will be free from bureaucratic control.” 110 
The Independent echoed this position: “The public . . . is generally ready 
to shake its head and emphatically deny the Secretary’s request, because 
of its experience with government-controlled telegraph and telephone 
wires in wartime.” 111 By the summer of 1919, it had to be clear to 
Daniels, Hooper, and other naval officials that not Congress, the press, or 
the public would support continued naval control of wireless. 

Yet, the alternative was returning the high-power stations to the 
Marconi Company, letting the firm gain access to American technology, 
especially the alternator, and, through that technology, establish a virtual 
international monopoly over wireless communications. To the high- 
ranking naval officials involved with wireless, such a prospect was un- 
thinkable. In their efforts to seek a solution to the situation, naval officials 
displayed considerable entrepreneurship. They began orchestrating the 
formation of an all-American company that would buy out American 
Marconi and remove, once and for all, foreign interests from America’s 
wireless communications networks. 

The story of the formation of the Radio Corporation of America has 
been told many times, most recently and with the most detail and sophis- 
tication by Hugh G. J. Aitken. That story will not be told in detail here. 


• 284 ■ 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


But several key points and events require our attention. The formation of 
RCA marked the culmination of the private, behind-the-scenes, institu- 
tional activities surrounding wireless. It marked the end of the wireless 
era and the beginning of the radio age. It represented the end of the 
militarization of the ether and the beginning of effective monopolistic 
control over access to the airwaves. Thus, it signaled the death knell for 
certain visions surrounding wireless and prompted a new, redefined set 
of visions in the popular press about how radio fit into American culture. 


THE AMERICAN MARCONI COMPANY had begun negotiating with 
G.E. in 1915 to purchase Alexanderson alternators. The negotiations 
were disrupted by the war, but they resumed in February of 1919 after 
Congress made it clear that the navy would not be awarded postwar 
control of radio. The Marconi Company had wanted exclusive rights to 
the alternator, which G.E. declined to assign. Under the terms of a tenta- 
tive contract, however, a de facto exclusivity would result, for the Mar- 
coni Company planned to order at least twenty-four alternators. This 
order would occupy G.E. for several years and prevent it from supplying 
anyone else with the machines until long after the Marconi Company had 
their alternators in place and operating. The real dispute emerged over 
the royalty rates to be paid G.E. for the right to use the machine, and by 
late March the two firms faced an impasse on this issue. 112 

Meanwhile, Hooper and Franklin D. Roosevelt, assistant secretary 
of the navy, and acting secretary while Daniels was in Europe for the 
peace talks, asked G.E. officials to hold off on finalizing any deal with the 
Marconi Company until the navy could discuss the wireless situation 
with G.E. representatives. This discussion took place in New York on 
April 8, 1919. Hooper and Admiral W. H. G. Bullard, who had been 
superintendent of the Naval Radio Service from 1912 to 1916, presented 
the navy’s case to G.E. officials. They emphasized what they considered 
to be the essential feature of any postwar wireless communications net- 
work: it had to be controlled by Americans. Since it was by now clear 
that the navy would not retain custody of the system, another alternative 
had to be found immediately, an alternative that would keep American 
technology and American-based long-distance wireless stations out of 
foreign hands. The alternative was to form a new company, an American 
company, which would buy out American Marconi and become a new 
wireless-operating company controlling the country’s long-distance, 
point-to-point wireless systems. Bullard and Hooper assured G.E. com- 
plete naval cooperation with such a venture, and also told G.E. officials 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


that President Wilson himself had sent from Europe a secret message 
urging G.E. not to sell its alternators to Marconi. Bullard and Hooper 
were highly persuasive: on April 9, G.E. informed the Marconi Company 
that it considered the negotiations concerning the alternator sales termi- 
nated. Several weeks later, the navy and G.E. reached a tentative agree- 
ment on the formation of the new American firm. 113 

Owen D. Young, vice-president at G.E., met with E. J. Naliy, presi- 
dent of American Marconi, in May. They discussed the creation of a new, 
all-American firm, and through the summer months negotiated an agree- 
ment. Further negotiations, beginning in August, were necessary be- 
tween G.E. and British Marconi, and the two reached a preliminary 
agreement on September 5. In October of 1919, the Radio Corporation of 
America was incorporated in Delaware. Nally became president, Young 
chairman of the board. RCA took over all the stations, offices, and facto- 
ries of American Marconi and retained Marconi personnel. The Marconi 
Wireless Telegraph Company of America ceased to exist. The navy finally 
had its all-American company, and G.E. had a client for its alternator and 
other radio apparatus. 

The most surprising aspect of the formation of RCA is how little 
press attention the new company received. Here was a corporate real- 
ignment that in only a few years would have a profound impact on the 
American economy, on the control of radio technology and access to the 
ether, and on the transmission of cultural values, yet there is not one 
article on the subject listed in the Reader’s Guide for 1919 or 1920. The 
New York Times printed a front-page story on January 5, 1920, head- 
lined “American Radio to Span the Globe,” which described RCA’s pur- 
pose as managing an international wireless-operating system that would 
compete with the cables. It also noted that the ownership and control of 
RCA was “vested exclusively in Americans.” The editorial pages of the 
Times during early January were preoccupied with the threat of Bolshe- 
vism here and abroad, and commentary was devoted to endorsing At- 
torney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s raids against alleged communists. 
There was no editorial on the demise of American Marconi and the 
formation of RCA. A watershed institutional event in the history of 
radio, and America, was ignored by the popular press. 

The journalistic silence about the formation of RCA was no anoma- 
ly; the press, during World War I, had neglected most of what was going 
on in wireless circles. AT&T’s successful wireless telephony tests re- 
ceived more coverage than any other wireless story between 1914 and 
1920. There were no reports about the transfer of patent rights from 
individuals to corporations. Although the New York Times and the Provi- 


• 286 ■ 


The Rise of Military' and Corporate Control 


dence Journal printed charges that the German station at Sayville had 
played a role in the sinking of the Lusitania, magazines such as Outlook, 
Literary Digest, and the Independent did not once mention Sayville in 
their coverage of the disaster. When Congressman Alexander first intro- 
duced legislation in 1917 authorizing government ownership of radio, 
only Scientific American printed an editorial on the subject. When the bill 
was reintroduced in 1918, the magazines ignored it. Radio historians 
have made much of the broadcasting of Wilson’s Fourteen Points to Eu- 
rope, and of his broadcast to the German people in September 1918, yet 
these highly symbolic events went completely unreported. The New 
York Times, in its coverage of Wilson’s Fourteen Points address to Con- 
gress, noted that the message was cabled abroad and printed on pam- 
phlets that were dropped from airplanes throughout Europe. The article 
did not mention radio. 114 

How are we to account for this silence? Certainly the press was 
preoccupied with the war, and war news crowded out other kinds of 
stories. But there were other factors, as well. Wireless was not new 
anymore. It had become an established part of shipping and of long- 
distance communication. More importantly, the critical wireless devel- 
opments in the teens were not the sort of events that got into news- 
papers. The technological transformation of wireless into radio occurred, 
with the exception of the AT&T-navy demonstration in 1915, in private, 
primarily in industrial research laboratories. The changes were incre- 
mental; some of them had to remain secret until patents were obtained. 
The improvements were in sophisticated, discrete components; to ex- 
plain and understand them required scientific literacy. The changes were 
also bureaucratic and institutional. They were part of a larger, ongoing 
national process still only partially apprehended by reporters — in fact, 
by many Americans. 

All of these factors were at odds with journalistic standards of news- 
worthiness, standards that favored technological display, the large public 
test marking the first, the newest, the biggest, the farthest, and fastest. 
These standards also compelled reporters to relate technical change to 
their readers’ lives, to describe how an invention would affect the ac- 
tivities and aspirations of ordinary middle-class Americans. This could be 
done when discussing the wireless telephone, even if the predictions 
were unrealistic, but reporting on vacuum tubes, feedback circuits, or 
alternators was another matter. Also important during the teens was the 
rise of the public relations agent in corporations and in the government: 
he told the press what he wanted published and was silent about the 
rest. The press, then, during the teens, by covering certain stories (and 


• 287 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


from a particular viewpoint) and ignoring others, legitimated the transfer 
of control over radio from individuals to institutions. Stories such as those 
celebrating AT&T’s successful tests, or condoning navy censorship and 
takeover of the high-power stations, validated the centralized manage- 
ment of radio technology in America. Nowhere in the popular press was 
the marriage between radio technology and exertion of American politi- 
cal will questioned, critiqued, or explored. 


REVIEWING THE IMPACT of World War I on the development of radio 
in America, one critical influence stands out: military control and man- 
agement. The navy brought enormous resources — money, manpower, 
an integrated and far-flung organizational structure — to bear on wireless 
development. Radio was, for the first time, under rigid monopolistic 
control. All stations, on ship and on shore, high power and medium 
power, were controlled by one organization. The content of messages, 
and who was allowed to send them, was controlled, as well. The navy 
imposed standardization on technical design, and centralized coordina- 
tion on the production and distribution of radio apparatus. The airwaves 
were used primarily to transmit point-to-point messages, and the navy 
placed strong emphasis on perfecting long-distance transmission and re- 
ception. When the navy’s high-power stations, especially the one at New 
Brunswick, were used for broadcasting, the messages were meant to 
exert diplomatic, political, and cultural influence. The messages were 
designed to produce consensus and compliance with American ideologi- 
cal goals. 

When RCA was formed in 1919 as a government-sanctioned mo- 
nopoly, all of this experience provided powerful lessons on how to man- 
age civilian American radio in the future. Indeed, the press release an- 
nouncing the formation of the company stated the firm’s goal as this: “To 
link the countries of the world in exchanging commercial messages.” 115 
The company was to provide long-distance, point-to-point communica- 
tions and to compete with the cables, but to take advantage of the tech- 
nological breakthroughs made during the war, RCA would have to per- 
petuate a version of the wartime patent moratorium imposed by the 
navy between 1917 and 1919. For, by the end of the war, AT&T and 
G.E., as well as United Fruit and Westinghouse, controlled the rights to 
critical patents. No firm controlled a complete technological system, and 
no firm enjoyed undisputed rights to manufacture vacuum tubes. Hooper, 
again modeling a civilian solution after a military precedent, urged that 
the patent moratorium be extended through postwar cross-licensing 
agreements. 


• 288 ■ 



The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


The first such agreement was between RCA and G.E., each licensing 
the other to use its patents. The next firm RCA had to reckon with was 
AT&T. Irving Langmuir at G.E. and Harold Arnold at AT&T had trans- 
formed De Forest’s audion into the vacuum tube, and while AT&T con- 
trolled the audion rights, RCA, through its absorption of American Mar- 
coni, controlled the rights to the Fleming valve. In a 1916 patent suit 
between De Forest and Fleming, the court established the priority of 
Fleming’s valve and ruled that De Forest could not manufacture the 
three-electrode audion without the consent of the Marconi Company. 
The court also ruled, however, that the Marconi Company could not use 
the triode without De Forest’s permission. 116 Getting beyond this critical 
technological impasse through adjudication promised to be costly and 
prolonged. Early in 1920, G.E. and AT&T began negotiating, with the 
understanding that any agreement reached would also include RCA and 
AT&T’s manufacturing arm, Western Electric. The two firms quickly 
worked out cross-licensing agreements on the vacuum tube, and then 
moved to discussions surrounding corporate turf: which companies 
would control which aspects of wireless communications. RCA estab- 
lished its exclusive rights to use the pooled patents for transoceanic 
wireless telegraphy and for ship-to-shore communication. Transoceanic 
wireless telephony was also within RCA’s province, although these 
rights were nonexclusive. AT&T retained its rights over wireless tele- 
phony, especially over land, and gained exclusive rights to “all land radio 
telephony for toll purposes.” 117 One of G.E.’s exclusive fields was the 
manufacture of amateur apparatus, especially vacuum tubes. G.E. also 
gained exclusive rights to manufacture radio receivers, while AT&T had 
the exclusive right to manufacture wireless telephone transmitters. 
Agreement, reached in July of 1920, resolved the vacuum tube dilemma. 
It also significantly enhanced RCA’s strength and ability to maneuver. 

E. J. Nally, president of RCA, spent the spring and summer of 1920 in 
Europe, negotiating transatlantic traffic agreements with other countries. 
Nally’s previous affiliation with the Marconi Company helped open 
doors for him, and although not all of his negotiations were easy, by the 
time he returned to the United States in September 1920, he had success- 
fully preempted the transoceanic wireless business. This proved to be a 
critical move, for Westinghouse, which had manufactured wireless appa- 
ratus during the war, had decided to try to compete with RCA. Its first 
step was to form a partnership with the International Radio Telegraph 
Company, owner of the Fessenden patents, but when Westinghouse tried 
to establish traffic agreements with European governments or commu- 
nications companies, it found that RCA had already beat it to the punch. 
Westinghouse also consolidated its technological position by acquiring 


• 289 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


Edwin Armstrong’s feedback circuit patents and his patents on the super- 
heterodyne, a method of reception which amplified and filtered weak 
incoming signals. These patents were critical to a complete technological 
system of continuous wave transmission and reception. 

Although Westinghouse executives initially rebuffed an offer by 
Owen Young to reduce competition between the two, by late 1920 they 
were ready to negotiate. In March of 1921, Westinghouse officially be- 
came part of the Radio Group, a corporate alliance among RCA, GE, and 
United Fruit designed to control radio technology. RCA agreed to divide 
its manufacturing orders between G.E., which would produce 60 per- 
cent of RCA’s radio apparatus, and Westinghouse, which would produce 
40 percent. RCA purchased the International Radio Telegraph Company, 
and Westinghouse and RCA agreed on cross-licensing agreements. Less 
than two years after the formation of RCA, the consolidated, monopo- 
listic structure the navy had imposed on radio during the war, which 
Secretary Daniels had argued was the only possible way to manage radio 
technology, had been successfully emulated and embellished by what 
later came to be known as the radio trust. The trust was set up to control 
access to the technology and to the ether itself. 

Radio technology was now embedded in interlocking corporate 
grids, and RCA had become a civilian version of the military monopoly 
that had controlled radio during the war. Military-industrial alliances in 
this country have been strengthened with each successive war; between 
1917 and 1919, we see the unabashed beginnings of that alliance in 
communications technology. The results were improved radio compo- 
nents, a trend toward consolidation and centralization of the industry, 
and a legitimation in the press of monopolistic control. So, although 
Secretary Daniels had failed in his campaign to place radio under perma- 
nent government control, the postwar military imprint on radio was 
nonetheless large and lasting. The most important naval legacy, possibly, 
was conceptual: the conviction, repeatedly articulated by Daniels, that 
radio was a natural monopoly, and that only as a monopoly could radio 
function efficiently in the United States. 

The other preconception RCA inherited from the navy, and from the 
Marconi Company, was that radio’s primary purpose was to establish 
long-distance, point-to-point communication between specific senders 
and receivers. For both the navy and the Marconi Company, the attention 
of their respective interlocking networks was directed outward, abroad, 
in a competitive quest for international hegemony. RCA adopted this 
orientation from the two organizations that were most responsible for its 
existence, and consequently its executives also looked outward, across 


■ 290 ■ 


The Rise of Military and Corporate Control 


oceans. In doing so, they remained blind to alternative ways of thinking 
about and using radio technology. Thus, while corporate negotiations 
parceled out control over patents and turf, the American amateurs un- 
wittingly revealed where the real radio profits lay. 


• 291 


CHAPTER NINE 


THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF 
AMERICAN BROADCASTING 

1912-1922 


ALTHOUGH THE MILITARY and major corporations, in turn, monopo- 
lized radio technology between 1912 and 1917, they failed to control, or 
to take seriously, how many individuals outside these bureaucracies 
thought about using the apparatus. These individuals, the amateurs con- 
signed in 1912 to their ethereal reservation of 200 meters and less, had 
not stopped exploring the “folds in the night.” Their numbers had in- 
creased dramatically after 1912, and their influence on how radio would 
eventually fit into American society was enormous. Their ideas and their 
activities provided an important countervailing force to the bureaucratic 
management of, and mindset about, radio. 

Despite the 1912 Radio Act — and partially because of it — amateur 
radio gained many new enthusiasts during the teens. Amateurs soon 
learned that there was considerable latitude in how the law was en- 
forced. First, the appropriations for implementing the law were ex- 
tremely modest: $37,880 in 1913 to inspect all commercial ship and 
shore stations and to test and license all commercial and interested ama- 
teur operators in the United States. 1 Many amateurs simply ignored the 
law and continued their wireless activities, although those near naval 
stations exercised more discretion than they had in the past. Even those 
who were licensed realized that 200 meters was not an ironclad wave- 
length assignment and that they could move up to 375 or 400 meters 
without getting into trouble. 2 In addition, the Department of Commerce 
published a call book that contained the names of all the amateurs who 
had successfully passed the government tests and secured transmitting 
licenses. According to one amateur, “the astounding number listed in this 
book was a revelation”; the call book also documented that the amateur 


• 292 ■ 



The Social Construction of American Broadcasting 


hobby was national in scope. 3 The government, by publishing and cir- 
culating the call book, inadvertently encouraged amateurs to try to 
achieve greater distances so they could communicate with their com- 
patriots across the country. As the amateurs’ experimentation intensified 
and their enthusiasm grew, they recruited even more boys and young 
men to explore the ether. 

The number of licensed amateurs and amateur stations increased 
sharply in the three years following enactment of the Radio Act: from 
322 licensed amateurs in 1913 to 10,279 in 1916. Between 1915 and 
1916 alone the department licensed 8,489 amateur stations. During the 
same period, only 5,202 commercial operators and fewer than 200 shore 
stations were licensed. 4 In 1917, the number of licensed amateur oper- 
ators totaled 13, 581. 5 Estimates placed the number of unlicensed receiv- 
ing stations at 150, 000. 6 Thus, even after federal legislation, the ama- 
teurs continued to dominate the airwaves. They were most numerous in 
the Midwest, in Great Lakes cities such as Cleveland and Chicago, and in 
seaports such as Baltimore, Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Seat- 
tle, each of which had hundreds of licensed amateurs and thousands more 
who were unlicensed. 7 

More amateurs began to use their apparatus to broadcast voice and 
music. One famous early broadcaster was “Doc” Herrold, who broad- 
cast music and advertising as early as 1914. He used an arc transmitter 
and powered his San Jose station by illegally hooking into the streetcar 
lines of the Santa Fe Railway. 8 High school and college radio clubs,* 
whose transmissions usually covered a radius of twenty-five to fifty 
miles, also began broadcasting more regularly. Amateurs recalled that 
between 1913 and 1915, voice and music broadcasting increased 
markedly. 9 

Radio broadcasting was enthusiastically promoted by its earliest 
pioneer, Lee De Forest. When De Forest negotiated with AT&T over the 
audion rights, he agreed to stay out of the radio-telephony business as 
AT&T conceived of it: point-to-point voice transmission from a specific 
sender to a specific receiver. He insisted, though, on being allowed to 
continue using his apparatus for the distribution of news and music, and 
on being allowed to manufacture and sell apparatus capable of receiving 
these broadcasts. To AT&T, such broadcasting was frivolous, a hobby, 
and certainly not a pastime that related in any way to its corporate goals, 
but to De Forest, broadcasting was a very serious business indeed. Since 
at least 1907, when he began performing experiments with his radi- 
ophone, De Forest had dreamed of bringing music, especially opera, into 
the homes of those unable to attend in person. De Forest did not abandon 


• 293 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 



An amateur station assembled at home: spark gap and sending key 
to the left, crystal detectors and tuning coil at right. 


this dream, and once his trial was over and his company revived, he 
resumed his broadcasting experiments. His pioneering work on voice 
and music transmissions had made him a great hero “to amateurs who 
were eager to hear him on the air again.” 10 It is impossible to ascertain 
whether De Forest expected, as early as 1914, that broadcasting would 
turn into such a huge business. What he did know was that there was a 
still-growing market for radio apparatus and a desire to use that apparat- 
us to pick up faraway stations and unusual transmissions. De Forest, who 
had always hungered for attention and recognition, was a born ham, in 
both senses of the term. In 1915, he erected a 125-foot tower on the roof 
of his Highbridge factory and inaugurated regularly scheduled half-hour 
“nightly concerts” of phonograph music. 11 In October 1916, he transmit- 
ted music to the Hotel Astor. 12 That same fall, he broadcast the Yale- 
Harvard football game, and on election night, he provided six-hour cov- 
erage of the neck-and-neck presidential race, signing off at 11:00 p.m. 
with the announcement that Charles Evans Hughes had been elected 
president. 13 On New Year’s Eve, he broadcast music to the Morristown, 
New Jersey, home of Theodore E. Gaty, vice-president of the Fidelity and 


The Social Construction of American Broadcasting 


Casualty Insurance Company of New York. Billed as “the first wireless 
dance,” the broadcast included a variety of musical selections, each intro- 
duced by the radio operator at Highbridge. Megaphones amplified the 
music in Gaty’s home. 14 De Forest also took advantage of his broadcasts 
to promote his own apparatus, and later claimed he was the first to 
advertise over the airwaves. 15 De Forest well anticipated how radio 
would be used: to broadcast music and entertainment, sports events, 
news, and advertising into people’s homes. 

De Forest, whom historians don’t usually characterize as a shrewd 
businessman, capitalized quite well on the transition from individual to 
institutional control over radio technology. He had, by 1914, developed a 
strong sense of who his audience was and what they wanted. He did not 
try to compete with the powerful communications corporations; rather, 
he catered to the market they dismissed. He took the amateur operators 
seriously, both as an audience and as a market; he did not ignore their 
importance. And during the war years, this audience continued to grow. 

The number of radio clubs, and their members, increased as well. 
The Radio Club of America, headquartered in New York, installed a 
station in the Hotel Ansonia in 1915. The American Marconi Company, 
which in the first decade of the century began publishing a publicity 
magazine, changed the magazine’s name in 1913 from the Marconigram 
to the Wireless Age. Two years later the magazine announced the forma- 
tion of a club sponsored by the magazine, the National Amateur Wireless 
Association. The same year, Hugo Gemsback announced the organiza- 
tion of the Radio League of America. 16 These clubs came to boast thou- 
sands of members, but the clubs’ political and organizational activities 
remained modest. 

Hiram Percy Maxim, who had organized the Hartford Radio Club 
and then, in 1914, the American Radio Relay League, thought radio clubs 
should be more politically active and publicly visible. He sought to have 
the league expedite the exchange of information among amateurs and to 
develop the league into an efficient, well-coordinated organization. 
Maxim, a graduate of MIT and a practicing engineer for decades, had 
considerable business experience before starting the Maxim Company of 
Hartford in 1908. He hoped to apply the methods big businesses used in 
coordinating their national operations to the management of a national 
system of amateur radio. The organizational ethic and the desire for 
legitimacy was directing the efforts of the leaders of amateur radio, too. 
Maxim and other league members dreamed of a coast-to-coast relay 
through which amateurs would demonstrate their seriousness of pur- 
pose and their technical expertise. Maxim persuaded the Department of 


• 295 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


Commerce to grant special licenses for transmission at 425 meters to 
stations at strategic points along the relay chain. He divided the league 
into districts and established wireless trunk lines between major relay 
points. The league published its own call book annually, which contained 
the names, addresses, call numbers, power, range, receiving speed, and 
operating hours of stations across the country. Accompanying this book 
was a map showing the location of these stations. In December 1915, the 
league published the first issue of its magazine QST, whose purpose was 
“to maintain the organization of the American Radio Relay League and to 
keep the amateur wireless operators of the country in constant touch 
with each other.” 17 Maxim organized drills to increase the efficiency of 
the trunk lines and to eliminate operators who were too slow or whose 
apparatus was inadequate. 

To demonstrate that the amateurs constituted a viable alternative 
communications network, Maxim planned the first countrywide mes- 
sage relay, which took place on Washington’s birthday in 1916. At 11:00 
p.m., a message from Colonel Nicholson of the Rock Island, Illinois, Arse- 
nal was broadcast from station 9XE in Davenport, Iowa. The message 
read “A democracy requires that a people who govern and educate 
themselves should be so armed and disciplined that they can protect 
themselves.” Amateurs relayed the message from station to station 
throughout the country; it reached New York at 1:30 a.m. The ARRL had 
arranged for the message to be delivered to the governor of each state 
and the mayors of major cities. In addition, the message was “read by 
Boy Scouts at Mount Vernon and on the battlefield of Bunker Hill.” 18 The 
success of the relay, and the favorable publicity it received, added to the 
growing prestige of amateur wireless. Maxim had been shrewd in stag- 
ing the relay so that the ARRL appeared willing and quite ready to 
cooperate with the government if and when that might be necessary. On 
his next trip to Washington, Maxim succeeded in getting the special 
license allocation upped from 425 to 475 meters. He now dreamed of a 
transcontinental relay with only two intermediate links. 

One year later, the ARRL announced the success of its second na- 
tional relay. The announcement came on March 8, 1917, seven days after 
news of the Zimmerman Telegram dominated the front pages. The press 
reported that hundreds of thousands of Germans were already in Mexico 
preparing to invade, and concern over American preparedness turned 
into panic in many quarters. Maxim framed the amateurs’ success accord- 
ingly. Members of the league had relayed a message from New York to 
Los Angeles, and a reply back to New York, in less than two hours. 
Maxim said the ARRL was now prepared to provide “transcontinental 


■ 296 • 



The Social Construction of American Broadcasting 


service through amateur plants, which, in case of war, would enable 
communication to be maintained, even if telegraph and telephone wires 
were cut.” The New York Times reported the league “Ready for War 
Service.” 19 Maxim clearly sought to discipline America’s amateurs and to 
establish distinctions between those who were skilled operators with 
efficient apparatus and those who were hacks. He wanted to make the 
amateurs, both in reality and in image, more docile and cooperative, 
more in harmony with the prevailing social order. 

Press coverage of the amateurs since the 1912 Radio Act emphasized 
their new utility to the government, especially in the event of war. Gone 
were articles titled “Curbing the Wireless Meddler.” They were replaced 
by articles such as “The Good of Amateur Wireless” and “Wireless Ama- 
teurs to the Rescue.” The romantic glow of amateur work continued to 
shine in “The Romance of Wireless” and “A New Style of Adventures.” 
The American Magazine ran a competition in which readers were to 
submit essays on “My Hobby and Why I Enjoy It.” Third prize in the July 
1916 issue went to a twenty-two-year-old amateur who wrote, “Our 
hobby is wireless and we talk, read and think wireless continually.” He 
asserted: “One who has never operated can nowhere begin to feel the 
thrill of satisfaction that we operators enjoy when working over great 
distances of space.” 20 During 1916 and early 1917, stories celebrating the 
romance of amateur radio were eclipsed by stories that cast the amateur 
network as a potential military resource. Typical was an article in the 
Woman’s Home Companion titled “Almost a Soldier ... Is the Boy Who 
Understands Wireless Nowadays.” The piece offered a brief description 
of how a boy could learn the hobby and announced the formation of a 
new organization, the Junior American Guard, sponsored by the Radio 
Signal Service of the U.S. Army. The boys and young men in this organi- 
zation constituted “a third arm in the defense of the country, should 
occasion ever arise.” 21 Yet, for the most part, the press failed to take note 
of or see the significance in the explosive growth of amateur radio during 
the teens. 

When the United States declared war on Germany in April of 1917, 
all amateurs were ordered to close down and dismantle their stations. To 
accelerate the process, local police searched for and seized independent 
stations; by April 10, according to the New York Times. New York police 
had closed down more than eight hundred stations. German- Americans 
who had their own wireless stations were subject to charges of es- 
pionage. Some were called in for questioning; others had their stations 
destroyed and their homes ransacked by police or special agents. 22 The 
amateurs, who had just one month earlier relayed a message across the 


• 297 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


United States and back, were completely shut down. Press reports indi- 
cate that many amateurs were disgruntled by the order and in many 
areas of the country failed to see the need for the measure. An Electrical 
Experimenter article, reprinted in the Literary Digest, advised the ama- 
teurs: “The government is with us, not against us.” 

This was quite true. With the declaration of war, the military’s need 
for skilled operators skyrocketed, and they were “scarcer than hen’s 
teeth.” 23 Training people would take months. Uncle Sam, it turned out, 
needed the amateurs, and launched a campaign through radio clubs and 
the press to persuade qualified amateurs to enlist as soon as possible. 
Telegrams went out to the ARRL, to Hugo Gernsback, to editors of 
technical journals, urging the amateurs to join up. Articles in magazines 
as diverse as St. Nicholas, Scientific American, and Women’s Home Com- 
panion advised young men to turn their hobby to national service. “It’s 
up to you if you prefer the trench to the radio tent behind the lines,” 
offered one writer. “You can be heroic and manly in either.” 24 

Thousands of amateurs responded to the call. The government set 
up radio schools for men and women at local YMCAs and at colleges 
and universities. The women were trained to serve as teachers of new 
recruits. But many of the amateurs needed only minimal training; they 
were already more than adequately skilled for military service and 
quickly passed the government’s radio exam. In early January 1917, 
there were 979 navy radiomen; by November of 1918, that number 
had jumped to approximately 6,700, a large proportion of them from 
the ranks of the amateurs. The amateurs were no longer a source of 
competition and interference in the airwaves. Instead, the subculture of 
American men and boys who had previously fought with the navy over 
who owned the ether now supplied the armed services with thousands 
of willing, cooperative recruits. They were no longer outside the sys- 
tem, they were part of it. 

When the war ended, however, the amateurs were eager to get 
back to their hobby. They had expected that the wartime restrictions on 
amateur radio would be lifted after the armistice in November 1918. But 
Secretary Daniels, who was stalling while he tried to reshape postwar 
wireless, maintained that the restrictions would not be lifted until the 
final peace treaty was signed. On April 12, 1919, the Navy Department 
lifted the ban on amateur receiving; the ban on transmitting remained 
until September 26. During the wait, the American Radio Relay League 
reorganized, reestablished its mailing list, resumed publication of QST, 
and reconstructed itself as a national organization. After the transmitting 
restrictions were lifted, the amateurs, whose licenses had expired during 


298 • 



The Social Construction of American Broadcasting 


the war, had to reapply for new ones. This requirement produced addi- 
tional delays, but by late fall of 1919, shortly after RCA was incorporat- 
ed, the amateurs began to return to the air. On December 4, 1919, the 
ARRL coordinated another transcontinental relay. The number of li- 
censed amateur stations continued to climb; by June of 1920, there were 
already fifteen times as many amateur stations in America as there were 
other types of stations combined. The number continued to grow: the 
Department of Commerce counted 6,103 licensed amateurs in 1920; one 
year later, the figure was 10, 809. 25 

Because many of these amateurs had served as radio operators dur- 
ing the war, they were familiar with the advances in circuitry, tube 
technology, and aerials. Many were eager to switch from spark tech- 
nology to continuous wave, and they especially wanted to adopt the 
new transmitting tubes. Yet in 1920 these tubes were not on the market; 
they had to be obtained in other ways. Those who found work after the 
war with one of the electrical concerns involved with radio were able to 
get transmitting tubes for their own uses. Amateurs who obtained such 
tubes began to broadcast not dots and dashes, but speech and music to 
their fellow operators. The most famous of these amateurs was Frank 
Conrad. 

Conrad, like many of his fellow enthusiasts, had been an amateur 
operator before the war. He also worked for Westinghouse and was a 
self-taught and gifted engineer. During the war, Conrad supervised West- 
inghouse’s manufacture of portable transmitters and receivers for the 
Signal Corps. After the war, Conrad resumed his amateur work and, 
using transmitting tubes (to which he had access), began talking to other 
amateurs and playing phonograph music over the air from his station, 
8XK. Soon he was receiving letters from other amateurs praising his 
broadcasts and making requests for particular songs. He scheduled his 
concerts on a regular basis: at first, every Saturday evening, and soon 
after, weeknight performances, as well. By May 1920, the Pittsburgh 
newspaper reported on the concerts, which included live performances, 
such as piano or saxophone solos, and phonograph music. 26 The ama- 
teurs, whose numbers continued to swell, were no longer receiving the 
dots and dashes that only a practiced initiate could decipher; now they 
were picking up speech and music. As a result, the amateurs could intro- 
duce their parents, friends, and siblings to the excitement of tapping the 
ether. The audience for broadcasting grew even larger. 

Seeing an opportunity to increase its sale of amateur apparatus, the 
Joseph Horne department store in September 1920 ran an ad in the 
Pittsburgh Sun describing the Conrad wireless concerts and informing 


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INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


the public that sets capable of picking up these concerts were on sale at 
Horne’s for ten dollars. When Harry P. Davis, a Westinghouse vice- 
president, saw the ad, he suddenly grasped that the company’s concep- 
tion of the wireless market had been much too limited in scope. He 
realized that “the efforts that were then being made to develop radio 
telephony as a confidential means of communication were wrong, and 
that instead its field was really one of wide publicity, in fact, the only 
means of instantaneous communication ever devised.” He now com- 
prehended that the amateurs did not represent a discrete market limited 
to technically inclined boys and men; rather, the amateurs were simply 
the forerunners of a much larger market for radio receivers. As Davis 
later remarked, “Here was an idea of limitless opportunity.” 27 

Davis urged that Westinghouse authorize Conrad to build a more 
powerful transmitting station at the Westinghouse plant and that Conrad 
broadcast on an even more regular basis. These broadcasts, according to 
Davis’s plan, would stimulate sales of radio receivers, and the profits 
from the sales would defray the cost of the station. Davis wanted the 
station completed by November 2, so Conrad could broadcast the presi- 
dential election returns. At 8:00 p.m. on November 2, 1920, the newly 
licensed station KDKA, operating at 360 meters, broadcast the election 
results. Amateurs listened enthusiastically, sometimes rigging up loud- 
speakers so friends and family members could listen, as well. To ensure 
that the broadcast had the right effect, both within and outside of the 
company, Davis provided Westinghouse officers with receiving sets, and 
also helped arrange for local department stores to have their radios tuned 
to Conrad’s station. Newspapers in Pittsburgh and elsewhere took note 
of the event, but most newspapers and magazines ignored the broadcast. 
News of it was spread most rapidly and enthusiastically by word of 
mouth among amateurs and their families and friends. Over the next year 
and a half, the “broadcasting boom” swept the United States, beginning 
in the Northeast and moving south and west, reaching unprecedented 
levels of intensity by the spring of 1922. 

Amateur operators and commercial establishments — primarily de- 
partment stores, newspapers, and Westinghouse, G.E., and then AT&T — 
set up broadcasting stations. RCA had begun selling transmitting tubes in 
the spring of 1921, enabling amateurs to transmit speech and music. 
Although the Radio Act of 1912 had restricted amateur transmission to 
200 meters or lower, during the teens Hiram Percy Maxim had succeeded 
in obtaining authorization for some stations to broadcast in the 350- to 
400-meter range. Other amateur stations had also moved above 200 
meters to longer wavelengths. With the advent of commercial broadcast- 


300 ■ 



The Social Construction of American Broadcasting 



Westinghouse photograph promoting the radio hobby to girls. 


ing, however, the Department of Commerce warned the amateurs that 
they must retreat to and remain at 200 meters. The corporate stations 
were assigned the 360-meter slot. An amateur station had to be re- 
licensed as a commercial station to use 360 meters, and various of the 
more powerful and sophisticated amateur stations made the shift, partic- 
ularly those which were supported by newspapers or department stores. 
Other amateurs were recruited by colleges or universities to help start 
educational stations. 

The amateurs revealed that many middle-class Americans were 
hungering for a sense of what people in different cities or states were 
like, what they thought and how they lived. The amount of listening in to 
far-off messages that took place, and the delight the amateurs took in this 
eavesdropping, suggests that these Americans had a feeling that there 
was more information available to them than they routinely received. 
They wanted this information in a less distilled, more immediate form: 
the popularity of motion pictures confirmed this. Amid the growing 
hubbub of public amusements, of cabarets, chautauquas, movies, and 
vaudeville, however, it must have been soothing to sit quietly at home 


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■ INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 



Publicity photograph of amateurs listening to a ballgame, ca. 1922. 


and yet be transported to distant places and be privy to all sorts of 
messages, personal and official. It is true that during the early twentieth 
century, many men and women of the middle and working classes pur- 
sued the various new amusements in the public sphere on an unprece- 
dented scale. But at the same time, there was in many the reticence, the 
love of comfort and quiet, the distaste for crowds, and the resentment at 
having to compete with others over space, time, and status during leisure 
hours which produced a cultivated, well-nurtured domestic inertia. 
These people wanted new experiences, information, and entertainment, 
too, but they were not always willing to go out for this stimulation. The 
amateurs were the first subculture of Americans, during the explosive 
rise in public entertainment, to spend much of their leisure time at home, 
using a new communications technology to entertain themselves and 
others. 

The amateurs and their converts had constructed the beginnings of a 
broadcasting network and audience. They had embedded radio in a set of 
practices and meanings vastly different from those dominating the offices 
at RCA. Consequently, the radio trust had to reorient its manufacturing 


• 302 ■ 







The Social Construction of American Broadcasting 


priorities, its corporate strategies, indeed, its entire way of thinking 
about the technology under its control. The amateurs had also taken the 
press quite by surprise. Newspapers and magazines, which had paid 
scant attention to the formation of RCA or to the burgeoning amateur 
population, were confronted with a new communications system of 
major significance. As they sought to grasp its meaning, they also worked 
to resolve, through symbolism and romantic language, the desires of 
corporate monopolies, and of “the people,” to get what they wanted 
from the ether. 


IN THE WINTER and spring of 1922, magazines and newspapers re- 
discovered radio. To the press, the fad seemed to come from nowhere. 
“Little more than a year ago,” observed a writer in Current Opinion, 
“the public regarded radiotelephony as a great mystery.” 28 Now, mil- 
lions were “listening in.” Official announcement of the boom came from 
Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, who described the “wire- 
less fever” as “one of the most astounding things that [has] come under 
my observation of American life.” 29 This proclamation from an official of 
Hoover’s stature alerted the press that it had better take note of a pastime 
quickly assuming major cultural and economic significance. “The rapidity 
with which the thing has spread has possibly not been equalled in all the 
centuries of human progress,” noted the Review of Reviews. “Never in 
the history of electricity has an invention so gripped the popular fancy.” 30 
Radio emerged “with almost stunning suddenness,” becoming “within a 
few weeks ... a force in public opinion and public taste fitly compara- 
ble to the press.” 31 In March of 1922, the New York Times observed, “In 
twelve months radio phoning has become the most popular amusement 
in America. If every boy does not possess a receiving outfit, it is because 
he lacks either imagination or money. ... In every neighborhood people 
are stringing wires to catch the ether wave currents.” 32 The public de- 
mand for receiving apparatus seemed insatiable, and RCA, West- 
inghouse, and many smaller firms went into overdrive to supply custom- 
ers. The first issue of Radio Broadcast, in May 1922, described people 
standing “in the fourth or fifth row at the radio counter waiting their turn 
only to be told when they finally reached the counter that they might 
place an order and it would be filled when possible.” 33 In 1922, sales of 
radio sets and parts totaled $60 million; in 1923, $136 million; by 1924, 
$358 million. 34 

Now the press, responding to the “tidal wave of interest in the 
subject,” overflowed with interpretive articles on the social destiny of 


• 303 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


radio. Magazines such as Collier’s and Literary Digest inaugurated radio 
sections in 1922, and new magazines such as Radio Broadcast were 
devoted entirely to the new craze. How would radio change America? 
What did the spread of broadcasting mean for Americans? These were 
the questions the popular magazines addressed. 

The radio boom seemed all the more sudden because radio had been 
badly neglected by newspapers and magazines between 1915 and 1922. 
The press, through the content and tone of its articles, constantly empha- 
sized the newness of the phenomenon. Little attention was paid to 
broadcasting’s twenty-year gestation period. In this way, in its coverage 
of radio, the press helped to reinforce the media’s tendency to ignore and 
thus deny their own history. This ahistorical stance made radio seem an 
autonomous force, so grand, complex, and potentially unwieldy that 
only large corporations with their vast resources and experience in effi- 
ciency and management could possibly tame it. 

The sense of awe that had permeated the early articles on wireless 
telegraphy also colored the early articles on radio. To many writers, it 
was as if a fantastic dimension that people had suspected and hoped 
existed had finally been penetrated. People responded as if radio put 
them in touch with primordial forces. In “Broadcasting to Millions,” A. 
Leonard Smith described hearing the sounds of static through his head- 
phones: “You are fascinated, though a trifle awestruck, to realize that 
you are listening to sounds that, surely, were never intended to be heard 
by a human being. The delicate mechanism of the radio has caught and 
brought to the ears of us earth dwellers the noises that roar in the space 
between the worlds.” 35 Joseph K. Hart wrote in the Survey: “We are 
playing on the shores of the infinite.” He found this probing of the cosmos 
thrilling; he also sensed that the hubris that had made such exploration 
possible had a potentially dangerous underside: “The most occult goings- 
on are about us. Man has his fingers on the triggers of the universe. He 
doesn’t understand all he is doing. He can turn strange energies loose. He 
may turn loose more than he figured on; more than he can control.” 36 
Grappling with the concept that something seemingly dark, quiet, and 
empty actually contained invisible life, another writer observed, “You 
look at the cold stars overhead, at the infinite void around you. It is 
almost incredible that all this emptiness is vibrant with human thought 
and emotion.” 37 The air had been cracked open, revealing a realm in 
which the human voice and the sounds of the cosmos commingled. 

Could this great void be filled not just with our voices, but with the 
voices of others, farther out in the cosmos? What were the sounds we 
called static, anyway? And could those in other spheres be listening in on 


■ 304 • 



The Social Construction of American Broadcasting 


us? Such questions were irresistible, especially when provoked by legiti- 
mate scientific observation. In the spring of 1919, Marconi announced 
that several of his wireless stations were picking up very strong signals 
“seeming to come from beyond the earth.” 38 Nikola Tesla, another prom- 
inent inventor, believed these signals were coming from Mars. Marconi, 
too, considered Mars a not unlikely possibility. While Scientific American 
urged skepticism, Current Opinion quoted Tesla extensively in support of 
the Mars hypothesis. Illustrated World, a magazine that popularized re- 
cent technical developments, ardently embraced the prospect of in- 
terplanetary communication. In its article “Can We Radio a Message to 
Mars?” the magazine urged Americans to try to respond to the signals 
from beyond. This would no doubt require scientists to mobilize “all the 
electrical energy of the nation” to transmit signals of sufficient power. But 
the effort had to be made, for only then would the Martians know that 
“their signals were being responded to, and that intelligent beings actu- 
ally inhabit the earth.” The article enthused: “We can imagine what 
excitement this would cause on Mars.” The most important reason for 
trying to contact Mars was to learn what the magazine assumed the 
Martians must know about improving, even perfecting, the quality of 
earthlings’ lives. “It is not unreasonable to believe,” predicted Illustrated 
World, “that the whole trend of our thoughts and civilization might 
change for the better.” 39 These Martians could not only view our civiliza- 
tion with considerable detachment, they could also, presumably, give us 
all the secret answers, at last. 

Illustrated World was a publication in which the distinctions be- 
tween science and science fiction were minimized; its articles were 
written with an unsophisticated or credulous audience in mind. Its pre- 
dictions about signaling to Mars would not have been taken seriously by 
some sectors of American society. Yet the underlying longings this article 
exposed are revealing, and they could hardly have been confined to 
readers of science fiction. In fact, the article contained themes that would 
be embellished in less fantastic, more earthbound articles about radio’s 
potential. There was a hunger for contact over great distances and with 
beings who presumably knew more, and were wiser, than most contem- 
porary Americans. Such contact would temper our deep and long held 
fears about being alone in the universe. Such contact would bring 
wisdom; it would be reassuring; it would be religious. Thus did the 
rhetoric surrounding radio draw from the past while it looked to the 
future. 

The aspect of radio most universally praised in the press was its 
ability to promote cultural unity in the United States. “The day of univer- 


• 305 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


sal culture has dawned,” proclaimed The Survey . 40 The author of an 
article titled “The Social Destiny of Radio” maintained that prior to 
broadcasting, a sense of nationhood, a conception that Americans were 
all part of one country, was only an abstract idea, often without much 
force. The millions of towns and houses across America were unrelated 
and disconnected. But now that atomized state of affairs was changing: 
“If these little towns and villages so remote from one another, so na- 
tionally related and yet physically so unrelated, could be made to acquire 
a sense of intimacy, if they could be brought into direct contact with one 
another! This is exactly what radio is bringing about. . . . How fine is the 
texture of the web that radio is even now spinning! It is achieving the 
task of making us feel together, think together, live together .” 41 

Stanley Frost, in his Collier’s article “Radio Dreams That Can Come 
True,” saw radio “spreading mutual understanding to all sections of the 
country, unifying our thoughts, ideals, and purposes, making us a strong 
and well-knit people .” 42 Those isolated from the mainstream of Ameri- 
can culture would now be brought into the fold. Farmers, the poor, the 
housebound, and the uneducated were repeatedly mentioned as the 
main beneficiaries of the culture surrounding people “in the flexible, 
tenuous ether .” 43 Frost reprinted in his article two letters of thanks writ- 
ten to Newark station WJZ by culturally dispossessed listeners. To set the 
stage for the first letter, Frost wrote, “There is a dingy house in a dreary 
street in a little factory town, where the miracle is working. A worried 
mother frets through the day to achieve a passable cleanliness for her 
flock, without power to give them the ‘better start’ and wider happiness 
she had dreamed. [A] little flurry of prosperity” allowed her to get a 
radio. The letter followed: “My husban and I thanks yous all fore the 
gratiss programas we receved every night and day from WJZ. . . . The 
Broklin teachers was grand the lecturs was so intresing . . . [the] annon- 
nser must be One grand man the way he tell the stores to the chilren.” 
Frost stated: “There are others, hundreds of letters a day of appreciation 
and delight from illiterate or broken people who are for the first time in 
touch with the world about them .” 44 

A writer predicted in Century Magazine that radio would “do much 
to create a sense of national solidarity in all parts of the country, and 
particularly in remote settlements and on the farm .” 45 The farmer’s lone- 
liness would be abolished, radio making him a real “member of the 
community.” The writer continued, “If I am right, the ‘backwoods,’ and 
all that the word connotes, will undoubtedly dwindle if it does not 
entirely disappear as an element in our civilization .” 46 Repeatedly, the 
achievement of cultural unity and homogeneity was held up, implicitly 


• 306 ■ 



The Social Construction of American Broadcasting 


and explicitly, as a goal of the highest importance. One writer went so far 
as to complain, “At present, broadcasting stations are far too eclectic.” 
The ultimate ethnocentric extension of the impulse toward cultural unity 
was the prediction that English would become the universal language. 
Argued one writer, “It so happens that the United States and Great 
Britain have taken the lead in broadcasting. If that lead is maintained it 
follows that English must become the dominant tongue .” 47 

Yet, this desire for unity, for sameness, was not without its opposite, 
the pleasure taken in discovering cultural diversity. In the first years of 
the broadcasting boom, listeners delighted in picking up as many stations 
as possible. Dedicated enthusiasts posted a special map of the United 
States on a wall near the radio. Red dots on the map designated the 
location of operating broadcast stations across the country; the call letters 
of each station were also listed. Listeners would spend the evening 
tuning their radios in the hopes of hearing stations thousands of miles 
away. One self-described radio maniac referred to the actual radio pro- 
grams as “the tedium between call letters.” He maintained, “It is not the 
substance of communication without wires, but the fact of it that en- 
thralls. . . . To me no sounds are sweeter than ‘this is station soandso.’ ” 48 
He described his delight in hearing “the soft Southern voice of Atlanta,” 
while another enthusiast relished picking up the Spanish emanating from 
the station in Havana. Many of these stations adopted slogans that high- 
lighted their special regionalism. Atlanta was “The Voice of the South,” 
Minneapolis “The Call of the North,” Davenport “Where the West Be- 
gins .” 49 Radio allowed people to skip across the country, to go to never- 
seen and exotic places, all by turning a dial. Like the movies, radio 
blended the urge for adventure with the love of sanctuary in an ideal 
suspension. The difference with radio, at least in these early years, was 
the greater sense of control the listener enjoyed. 

This feeling of mastery, coupled with the sense of adventure, kept 
radio enthusiasts at their sets night after night. Picking up far-away 
stations was frequently likened to other sports, especially fishing. “There 
are times when it is as difficult to land a given station — making the same 
demands upon patience, ingenuity, and even skill— as to bring to boat 
that elusive creature, the sailfish .” 50 Another writer used the same meta- 
phor: “This fishing in the far away with the radio hook and line is rare 
sport. The line is long, the fishing is getting better all the time, and it 
usually does not take many minutes to find out what you have on the 
hook .” 51 As such a metaphor suggests, this active type of listening, which 
involved some technical expertise in adjusting the apparatus and bringing 
it to its maximum efficiency, was confined almost entirely to men and 


• 307 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


boys. Those who wrote about their ethereal adventures celebrated the 
manly challenges radio posed: “Your wits, learning and resourcefulness 
are matched against the endless perversity of the elements.” 52 Within the 
safety of one’s home, and out of public view, one’s masculinity could be 
tested and reaffirmed. 

Even after the desired station was reeled in, the essentially passive 
act of listening to radio programming was imbued in magazine articles 
with a sense of empowerment. Listeners had a choice: they could turn 
the dial until they got exactly what they wanted to listen to; if they didn’t 
like what they heard, they could shut the radio off. More people, what- 
ever their circumstances, had access to cultural events than ever before. 
“We have all free tickets to the greatest radio show on earth,” noted one 
writer. As Stanley Frost put it, “With radio we, the listeners, will have 
an advantage we have never had before. We do not even have to get up 
and leave the place. All we have to do is press a button, and the speaker is 
silenced.” Therefore, predicted Frost, “We will get what we want.” 53 
This sense of control over cultural content, combined with increased 
access to cultural events, cultivated a sense of cushioned privilege. One 
“music loving gentleman” decided to turn in his ticket to hear the Philhar- 
monic Orchestra and to listen to the performance on radio instead. “I can 
only afford a top gallery ticket,” the man explained, “but the radio micro- 
phone always gets a good seat down-stairs. 1 enjoy the music just as well 
here by my fireside and 1 save a lot of climbing.” 54 

Another writer hinted at how monetary and class differences had, in 
the past, determined who got the good seats at a concert. Those with the 
cheapest seats usually could not hear the music very well. With radio, 
though, everyone hears the music “as plainly as if he had the best seat in 
the auditorium.” 55 Everyone who previously could not attend such con- 
certs now could. Thus was radio seen as democratizing some of the 
advantages previously enjoyed by the well-to-do, and bringing all the 
benefits of high culture to the masses. At the same time, radio helped 
insulate its listeners from heterogeneous crowds of unknown, different, 
and potentially unrestrained individuals. One writer absolutely reveled 
in the marriage between entertainment and solitude: “This vast com- 
pany of listeners ... do not sit packed closely, row on row, in stuffy 
discomfort endured for the delight of the music. The good wife and I sat 
there quietly and comfortably alone in the little back room of our own 
home that Sunday night and drank in the harmony coming three hundred 
miles to us through the air.” He imagined other listeners in their back 
rooms, garages, dining rooms, attics, or cabins, “each and all sitting and 
hearing with the same comfort just where they happen to be.” 56 The 


• 308 • 



The Social Construction of American Broadcasting 


listeners sat suspended, in delicious tension, between their hunger for 
contact with the outside world and their craving for the comforts of 
home. With radio, both appetites were satisfied at once. 

Although radio had indeed become embedded within the larger 
network of commercial entertainment in America, for those who wrote 
about radio and its role in American life, radio represented an antidote to 
what critics considered the more debasing effects of mass culture. Re- 
formers who fancied themselves the true custodians of American culture 
believed that leisure activities should be educational and morally uplift- 
ing, and should not overly stimulate the senses. These reformers were 
witness to the rise of public amusements and commercialized leisure 
activities that often deliberately flouted such genteel precepts. Dime nov- 
els relied on hackneyed writing and action-packed stories, and at times 
they even glorified their criminal protagonists. Comic strips told their 
stories with pictures. The dark, crowded nickelodeons in working-class 
neighborhoods seemed to reformers to be dens of iniquity. Amusement 
parks were specifically designed to overstimulate the senses. Leisure had 
not taken the course many reformers had hoped. Radio seemed to hold 
out a remedy, or at least an alluring alternative, to all this. Like the first 
press coverage of wireless in 1899, the new hopes invested in radio were 
shaped by a faith in technological determinism, a belief that certain 
machines could make history. The educated bourgeoisie who believed 
their conception of culture to be at risk became newly optimistic with the 
advent of broadcasting. Here, at last, was a mass medium that could 
instill the right values in people. 

The educational possibilities seemed unlimited. Collier’s “radio ma- 
niac” claimed that radio provided “an education both precise and var- 
ied.” Through the radio hobby, his son had become more technically 
informed and manually dexterous while mastering American geography. 
In listening to the programs, he had learned about politics, music, agri- 
culture, and sports. 57 Magazines also offered grander visions. Radio could 
“give everyone the chance and the impulse to learn to use his brains.” In 
doing so, radio would “tend strongly to level the class distinctions, which 
depend so largely on the difference in opportunity for information and 
culture.” 58 “Who can help conjuring up a vision of a super radio univer- 
sity educating the world?” asked one writer. With radio, minds could 
“be detonated like explosives.” 59 In his essay “Radiating Culture,” 
Joseph Hart envisioned previously bored students now being instructed 
“by a single, inspiring teacher who speaks to the thousands of revived 
students through a central radio-phone. A whole nation of students 
might thus come under the stimulating touch of some great teacher.” 60 


■ 309 ■ 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


The first lecture being delivered by radio from Tufts University, 1922. 


Colleges and universities set up radio extension schools, and anyone 
could listen in. As one writer stated, every home had “the potentiality of 
becoming an extension of . . . Harvard University .” 61 

Anxieties about musical tastes surfaced in these articles, although 
there was optimism that as radio matured, the quality of music played 
would improve. Several writers made explicit distinctions between 
“good music” and jazz, which was more popular and more frequently 
played. One complained, “Most of the musical talent that is now at- 
tracted by the broadcasting stations is of mediocre nature.” He also con- 
tended, however, that there were “thousands upon thousands of people 
whose musical tastes [ran] high above the average received from the air.” 
To prove that people preferred a “higher class of talent,” he cited the 
popularity of AT&T’s WEAF, which could afford to recruit such talent 
because it accepted advertising . 62 Thus might radio, by bringing opera 
and other “good music” to the millions, upgrade American musical 
standards. 

Another area of American life radio might improve was politics. 
“We may even become more thoughtful about the selection of our presi- 








The Social Construction of American Broadcasting 


dents,” noted one observer sarcastically, “if we have to run the risk of 
hearing them speaking directly to us, however far from them we may try 
to keep ourselves.” 63 Another commentator believed radio would make 
politicians more sensible and accountable to their constituencies: “Let a 
legislator now commit himself to some policy that is obviously senseless, 
and the editorial writers must first proclaim his imbecility to the commu- 
nity. But let the radiophone in the legislative halls of the future flash his 
absurdities into space and a whole state hears them at once.” Citizens 
would be better able to judge a president who was “a real personality” 
instead of “a political abstraction.” 64 

Bruce Bliven, writing for Century Magazine, gave voice to a pro- 
gressive hope for radio’s salubrious effects on politics. Crowds listening 
to a politician’s speech in a large public setting were subject to “the mob 
spirit, with its factitious enthusiasm.” The astute politician sought to take 
advantage of such mob psychology, and thus would cater more to the 
emotions than to the intellect. But with radio, argued Bliven, people 
would listen to the speech not as members of a crowd, but as individuals. 
The politician’s ideas therefore would “have a better chance of being 
weighed for what they are really worth.” Thus, radio might even pro- 
duce a new kind of politician, a “man without the ordinary tricks of 
delivery, but possessed of a quiet, logical persuasiveness.” Bliven al- 
lowed that such a man would have to have a “deep resonant voice such 
as will carry well in the microphone.” 65 A major benefit was that more 
people than ever before would be able to hear their political leaders 
simultaneously. Political speeches reprinted in the newspapers often 
went unread, according to Bliven. With radio, more people could be- 
come politically informed than ever before, and they would have a sense 
of immediacy about the information they received. Politicians would 
seem less remote, more accountable, while the audience would gain a 
new sense of cohesiveness, even political empowerment, through the 
knowledge that everyone in a city, state, or region, or even everyone in 
the country, had heard the same speech at the same time without the 
distorting effects of mob response. This knowledge would further the 
sense of cultural unity: millions of people across the country, hearing 
together, reacting together, thinking together, as informed, politically 
aware citizens. 

Religion was another area of life destined for change through radio. 
Sermons were an early staple of broadcasting; by 1921 KDKA transmit- 
ted the complete church service of the Calvary Episcopal Church of 
Pittsburgh every Sunday night. “Think of what this means to many 
people,” urged the reporter for Scientific American. 66 He, too, men- 


■ 311 ■ 


INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


tioned the farmer, the invalid, the housebound who, prior to radio, had 
been cut off from religious services. All of these people could now “al- 
most imagine being in church.” “The preacher who has a little black box 
mounted on the pulpit,” wrote another commentator, “comes very soon 
to know that the congregation seated before him is to the great invisible 
listening throng but as the sprinkle of a few drops over the baptismal font 
to the pouring rain outside .” 67 The preacher came to know this because 
preachers who broadcast their services received thousands of letters and 
telephone calls expressing thanks and requesting copies of the sermons. 
That radio seemed to be bringing more Americans into the religious fold 
was significant indeed. Since the late nineteenth century, religious au- 
thority had been undermined by Darwinism, the ethics of industrial 
capitalism, and a reverence for science and technology. Radio, however, 
promised a reconciliation between religion and the corporate-industrial 
secular world, for it was the first technology that could bring religion into 
people’s homes. Radio, the product of monopolistic capitalism, would 
help reassert precapitalist, Christian values in America. 

Contemporary writers, whatever their hopes or biases, were all 
aware that they were witnessing a social transformation of monumental 
importance. Radio listeners constituted “the greatest audience ever as- 
sembled by any means for any purpose in the history of the world.” This 
audience was “remarkable” and “totally different in several ways from 
anything before known .” 68 First of all, it was huge; conceiving of an 
audience as hundreds of thousands or millions of people required a major 
imaginative leap. Second, the audience was invisible and unknown. The 
speaker or performer could not see facial responses or hear laughter, 
booing, or silence; nor was there applause. At the same time that the size 
of the speaker’s audience had multiplied beyond anyone’s calculation, his 
visual relationship with that audience was severed. Bruce Bliven 
thought that “so much listening without seeing” had “upset one of 
nature’s subtle biological balances” and had created “what might be 
called ‘a hunger of the eyes.’ ” 69 

Because this audience was invisible, scattered, and unknown, com- 
mentators were unsure about its character. Was this audience just like a 
mob, only dispersed, but equally capable of being excited and manipu- 
lated by an ambitious speaker who was newly empowered by radio? Or 
was the audience compromised more of people like the magazine writers 
themselves: discriminating, thoughtful, with values and ideas of their 
own, certainly impervious to the wiles of a disembodied voice? The 
answers to these questions were critical, for they were directly related 
to radio’s potential as a tool for social control. The magazine articles on 
the topic revealed an uneasy ambivalence about the audience. What did 


• 312 ■ 



The Social Construction of American Broadcasting 


these invisible listeners want? How pliant were they? Would radio be a 
“tremendous civilizer,” increasing public demand for “the daily news of 
events, the opinions of leaders, the counsel of the wise, the comments of 
observers, [and] the hopes of the prophets,” as one magazine sug- 
gested? 70 If so, how would such broadcasts be received? Might one of 
these leaders or prophets be able to “tell men what to think and say and 
how to act”? Would he be able to “shape them to a common, uniform, 
subservient mediocrity”? 71 Would this audience be content to hear pri- 
marily “outrageous rubbish, verbal and musical,” and would it be 
swayed by the “appalling mass of solemn bunk and some really vicious 
propaganda” that was already flowing through the ether? 72 

Implicit in virtually all of the magazine articles written in the early 
1920s about radio’s promise was a set of basic, class-bound assumptions 
about who should be allowed to exert cultural authority in the ether. The 
New Republic stated the position baldly. Radio, asserted the editors, “is 
mainly under control of men unfitted by training and personality for posts 
of such importance.” These were businessmen, ignorant of radio’s “prop- 
er use” and “indifferent as to whether it is used properly or not.” Such 
men were not unlike those who first controlled motion pictures: “fly-by- 
nights, adventurers and reformed pushcart peddlers, not one in a hun- 
dred of whom had reached the social level where one takes one’s hat off 
indoors.” The proper use of radio, according to the New Republic, was 
educational: radio should be “an intellectual force.” Radio could never 
fulfill this mission as long as it was managed by those whose interest was 
music or entertainment. Such men, the magazine asserted, “are admira- 
bly fitted to assemble orchestras, pianists and singers; but when it comes 
to lectures and addresses they are about as competent as Florenz Ziegfeld 
is to run Columbia University.” 73 

It was not that members of the educated bourgeoisie objected to 
radio being used to influence those millions of invisible listeners; the 
bourgeoisie’s major concern was that those exerting the influence em- 
brace genteel values about what culture should be. The subtext of these 
magazine articles maintained that radio should be edifying — should ap- 
peal to the intellect rather than the emotions — should elevate musical 
tastes, and should promote contemplation and the ability to discriminate 
between the worthy and the base. Radio, by providing the perfect instru- 
ment for delivering high culture to the masses, could produce a new mid- 
culture that combined the content of high culture with the techniques of 
commercialized entertainment. As one writer put it, “The man who 
directs a broadcasting station must combine the astuteness of P. T. Bar- 
num and the good taste of a Gatti Cassaza.” 74 

Here was a captive audience of millions. It was true they could turn 


• 313 • 



INVENTING AMERICAN BROADCASTING 


their dial, but the hope running through these articles was that, given a 
choice between quality and banality, the audience would prefer quality. 
Thus did radio present the educated bourgeoisie with an opportunity to 
exert social control through culture. All the talk of cultural unity, of 
bringing the culturally dispossessed into the radio family, of leveling class 
distinctions based on money or education, revealed an intense desire to 
have this technology affirm and extend the cultural tastes and norms of 
the upper tiers of the middle class. The great fear was that, if it was not 
properly managed, radio would extend the cultural authority of the P. T. 
Barnums and “reformed pushcart peddlers” of America who had so 
debased, in genteel eyes, the leisure time of the masses. 

Radio, then, meant progress for all. The technology would bring 
improvement to many areas of American life and thus benefit everyone, 
the ignorant and the well read, the poor and the rich, the individual and 
the institution. In these press accounts there was no tension between 
corporate ambitions and individuals desires: they were really the same 
thing. 


314 • 



EPILOGUE 


IN THE SPRING OF 1922, the radio boom was just beginning. To many 
people at the time, the entire enterprise seemed filled with uncertainty: 
Who would be allowed to broadcast? How would interference between 
competing stations be controlled? Where would the money come from to 
support broadcasting? Such questions dominated magazine articles, ex- 
ecutive board meetings, and the annual Washington Radio Conferences 
organized by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover from 1922 to 
1925. Congestion in the airwaves became intolerable as department 
stores, newspapers, universities, and churches across the country, as well 
as AT&T, Westinghouse, and GE, established their own radio stations. In 
many areas, competition over access to the spectrum required that sta- 
tions “time-share,” taking turns using the same wavelength. When such 
informal arrangements broke down, cacophony ensued. The cost of 
broadcasting rose as radio technology became more expensive and as 
licensing fees to use that technology, and the wages charged by perform- 
ers, increased dramatically. A range of financing schemes was debated in 
the press, the industry, and the government, from a licensing fee on sets, 
to municipal funding, to advertising. At the same time, government offi- 
cials complained that the Radio Act of 1912 did not provide them with 
adequate guidelines or power to make broadcasting more orderly. Be- 
tween 1922 and 1927, broadcasting appeared to be in a state of eco- 
nomic, regulatory, and ethereal chaos. 

Despite this chaos and uncertainty, however, critical precedents had 
been set prior to 1922 that guided how broadcasting would be managed. 
Most importantly, because radio technology was in the hands of corpora- 
tions, the ether would have to turn a profit. Members of the radio trust — 


• 315 ■ 


Epilogue 


RCA, GE, Westinghouse, and AT&T — had gained control of radio tech- 
nology and, like their predecessor Marconi, sought to establish a tech- 
nological and organizational system impervious to competition. Mar- 
coni’s model was instructive: create a communications network, seek to 
monopolize message handling, and sell temporary access to the ether to 
interested clients. This is precisely what the radio trust did. The trust 
manufactured millions of dollars worth of apparatus and also set up 
stations around the country. Through patent suits and the imposition of 
licensing fees for using trust-controlled technology, the trust was able to 
reduce competition or make competitors pay for the privilege of broad- 
casting. The trust had the technical, financial, and organizational re- 
sources to shape programming content, to influence public policy, and to 
determine how broadcasting would maximize profits. AT&T, through its 
flagship station WEAF, introduced advertising over the airwaves in 
1922. AT&T described itself as a communications firm that did not pro- 
duce its own messages, but that sold access to the airwaves to people 
who had messages to send. Marconi had established the precedent for 
this model; now AT&T elaborated and extended it to produce staggering 
profits. 

Regulatory guidelines for resolving disputes in the ether existed, as 
well. The state would intervene, ostensibly on behalf of “the people,” 
and decide which wavelengths would be allocated to the various com- 
peting claimants to the spectrum. In 1912, the state gave the preferred 
portions of the spectrum to the commercial wireless companies and the 
military, and relegated individuals unaffiliated with corporations or the 
government to the least desirable wavelengths. This pattern of regula- 
tion was repeated in the 1920s. Herbert Hoover, whose trademark was 
industry-government cooperation, sought to alleviate etheral congestion 
in 1923 by dividing radio stations into three classes — high power, medi- 
um power, and low power — and assigning the most preferred and least 
congested wavelengths to the high-power stations, while consigning the 
low-power stations to the one wavelength (360 meters) that was al- 
ready overcrowded. It will come as no surprise that the high-power 
stations were owned by AT&T, GE, and Westinghouse while the low- 
power stations belonged to universities, churches, and labor unions. 
These stations were still required to time-share, and many were only 
allowed to broadcast during the day. This preferential treatment toward 
the technologically most powerful (and richest) commercial stations, and 
the regulatory marginalization of smaller, noncommercial stations, per- 
sisted through the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 
1934. As in 1912, the state remained an important ally of corporate 


• 316 • 



Epilogue 


interests, legitimating their often preemptive claims to the spectrum, and 
constraining the transmitting activities of those with less power and 
money. Certainly the federal government, especially the justice depart- 
ment, was not always friendly to corporate interests, and since 1930 
RCA and other members of the radio trust have been subject to antitrust 
suits and consent decrees. But the government’s role in these cases has 
been to determine when oligopoly went too far, not to challenge its basic 
legitimacy. 

Also in place by 1922 was the dominant conception about what the 
ether was and who had a legitimate claim on how it was used. As a result 
of the previous debates among commercial wireless companies, govern- 
ment officials, the amateurs, and the press, the ether was now considered 
a common property resource in which all Americans had an interest. To 
protect that interest, however, and to save the resource from being 
overrun and having its value destroyed, the ether needed custodians. 
Through the ongoing public discourses about managing “the air,” the 
military had been rejected as appropriate caretaker, and the amateurs 
cast as agents of etheral anarchy. The badge of legitimacy went to the 
communications corporations, who burnished its authority by present- 
ing themselves as acting out of benevolent, farsighted paternalism. There 
were dissenters from this conception of spectrum management, es- 
pecially among amateurs, educators, and religious groups, and there was 
some resentment in the 1920s about a potential corporate monopoly of 
the air. But there was no major break in this ideological frame concerning 
who was best qualified to serve as warden of the ether. 

Technically, economically, legislatively, and ideologically, the ele- 
ments of America’s broadcasting system were, thus, in place by 1922. 
The constellation of these factors, and how they interacted, had been 
shaped by the larger historical forces that were redefining American 
society at the turn of the century. Had the technical developments, the 
corporate strategies, or the journalistic frameworks been different, or 
had that period in history not been marked by consolidation and cen- 
tralization in the public and private sectors, and by the marginalization of 
diversity in the ideological sphere, the use of radio in America may have 
been quite different: after all, national networks and radio advertising 
were not inevitable. There were other alternatives, as demonstrated by 
the way radio was managed in other countries. That those alternative 
courses were not taken tells us a great deal about how American society 
in the early twentieth century rationalized the connections among tech- 
nology, ideology, and power. 


■ 317 ■ 



Epilogue 


SO MUCH HAD CHANGED in the United States since that fall day in 
1899 when Marconi first demonstrated his new invention, the wireless 
telegraph, before awed Americans. The wireless, which Marconi meant 
to send Morse code messages between a specific sender and a specific 
receiver, which he developed for institutional clients, and which he 
struggled to make secret and private, had become, by 1922, radio, a 
device marketed to consumers so that they could hear programs broad- 
cast to a vast audience of nonpaying listeners. The technology was under 
corporate control, and it would be corporations that would decide, for 
the most part, what was transmitted in the ether and what was not. 

The nearly twenty-five-year process that produced this transforma- 
tion involved the dynamic interplay of individual insights and oversights, 
organizational ambition and recalcitrance, and technological break- 
throughs and errors. Sharply competing ideas about how the invention 
should be used, and by whom, informed the process from the start. In this 
interchange among men, machines, and ideas, which affected the social 
construction of radio broadcasting, the role played by conflict is striking. 
In this case, although the concept of social construction has been quite 
valuable, the word construction itself is misleading. It suggests a more 
cooperative process than occurred with radio. Radio broadcasting, de- 
spite the references to cultural unity in the press, was the result of battles 
over technological control and corporate hegemony, and of visions about 
who should have access to America’s newly discovered frontier environ- 
ment, the electromagnetic spectrum. 

The corporations forming the radio trust won these battles in the 
end. This is not surprising, given that monopolistic capitalism was, by the 
1920s, the established way of managing the American economy. But we 
must remember how they succeeded, because as late as 1920 they were 
not planning on radio broadcasting. One key to their success was the 
way they were able to control, and interlink, the three arenas of tech- 
nology, business strategy, and the press. Here the role that bureaucracy 
plays in technological change becomes very clear. By the turn of the 
century, and especially after the panic of 1907, these corporations had 
what the inventors did not: well-staffed, well-funded, and separate yet 
related departments to deal specifically with each of these arenas. AT&T, 
G.E., and Westinghouse had industrial research laboratories, and while 
many engineers in the labs, particularly in the early years, felt the pres- 
sure of market considerations, others were more free to work on an 
emerging technology such as radio. These companies employed carefully 
selected engineers, who also appreciated market considerations, to serve 


■ 318 • 


Epilogue 


as the liaisons between the research labs and the company’s top brass. 
Such companies were also establishing their own public relations depart- 
ments, staffed by men whose specialty was understanding and manip- 
ulating the rhetoric surrounding technology and business. Thus, their 
success was not due solely to the fact that the large electrical firms had 
more money than the individual inventors; more important was that 
their financial power was expressed through and reinforced by a care- 
fully articulated bureaucratic structure that addressed, specifically, these 
three arenas of technology, business strategy, and the press. 

That success in all three arenas was critical to controlling this emerg- 
ing technology was demonstrated by the navy’s failure to retain control 
of radio at the end of World War I. By April 1917, the navy’s internal 
organization had changed to accommodate radio’s presence at sea and on 
shore; the navy was now capable of coordinating technical development 
and bureaucratic implementation. The war was used to justify the exter- 
nal strategy of navy takeover, suppression of the amateurs, and expan- 
sion of military hegemony in the ether. Many of the ideological shifts that 
occurred during the war, the rhetorical exaggerations that legitimated a 
range of social changes and excesses, shifted back to prewar frameworks 
after the armistice, however. The navy’s success in the ideological arena 
between 1915 and 1919 deluded Daniels and his supporters into think- 
ing that this success would be lasting. They did not appreciate that the 
influence the military enjoys over public discourse during wars can, and 
usually does, dissipate along with the smoke of the last battle. The press 
supported private, capitalist control over radio: it had done so prior to 
1915 and did so after November 1918. The navy could not overcome the 
bias against government control of public utilities, which had reached 
new heights by war’s end. Nor did the navy control the technology. Thus, 
while in 1919 the navy enjoyed titular power over America’s radio 
networks, it was no match for the communications corporations, which 
had carefully cultivated their turf in all three arenas. 

Bureaucratic control over radio had its advantages. Certainly con- 
tinuous wave technology advanced much more rapidly under the aus- 
pices of G.E., AT&T, and the U.S. Navy. The patent moratorium during 
the war, and the subsequent cross-licensing agreements, made possible 
the coordination of a complete technological system. These organizations 
simply had the financial, legal, and human resources to achieve these 
ends, resources unavailable to individuals. 

Technological progress and systems building came at a cost, howev- 
er; the price was individual initiative and freedom in the ether. Control 
over radio technology put these corporations in an extremely powerful 


■ 319 ■ 



Epilogue 


position, not just economically, but culturally, as well. The way the state 
promoted and protected corporate interests in the airwaves over those of 
individuals added to corporate power. The radio trust was thus able to 
co-opt the amateur vision of how radio should be used, and to use the 
airwaves for commercial ends, to try to promote cultural homogeneity, 
to mute or screen out diversity and idiosyncracy, and to advance values 
consonant with consumer capitalism. 

The broadcasting boom marks a critical turning point in consumer 
culture and the corporate role in shaping that culture. Certainly the fact 
that corporations were sending music and other forms of entertainment 
into people’s homes was revolutionary, as was the eventual sponsorship 
of these shows by increasingly brazen advertisements. Another major 
turning point was reached, too; it concerned corporate insight into and 
sensitivity to the marketplace. While the amateur audience increased 
every year after 1907, it was catered to only by small companies such as 
De Forest’s or Gernsback’s Electro-Importing Company. The amateurs 
were too inconsequential a subculture in the eyes of G.E. and AT&T to be 
considered as anything but a quirky fringe group or a nuisance. Even as 
late as 1919, when RCA was formed, the oversight persisted. RCA 
would provide communications to institutional clients, not individual 
consumers. RCA had the resources to rectify its shortsightedness and to 
capitalize on the boom, so the myopia was hardly fatal. One cannot help 
but think that since they were surprised in this way, RCA executives and 
the many other corporate leaders who witnessed this ambush by the 
audience cultivated a more calculated, opportunistic outlook toward 
other American activities seemingly removed from the profit potential. 
The concept of who might be considered a potential consumer expanded. 
This sense of untapped domestic markets, this corporate conviction that 
there were millions who would willingly reorient their activities, val- 
ues, and dreams around consumerism, took root and flowered as execu- 
tives observed, and then managed, the broadcasting boom. 

Legitimation of this revolutionary transformation was provided by 
the mainstream, popular press, which, by the 1920s, had itself invested 
in the assumptions underlying consumer capitalism. The press was no 
more objective then than it is now, and its biases caused certain aspects of 
radio’s development to be ignored while other aspects were reviewed 
and celebrated repeatedly. 

What was emphasized and what was ignored? Whether saving lives 
at sea or bringing lectures to the farmer, radio was consistently cast as the 
agent of American democracy and altruism. Wireless in 1900 would 
allow individuals to communicate with whomever they wanted when- 


■ 320 ■ 



Epilogue 


ever they wanted. Thus, through wireless, Americans could circumvent 
hated monopolies such as Western Union; the benefits of modern commu- 
nication would be made available to all. In the 1920s, radio again was 
portrayed as a democratic agent, leveling class differences, making politi- 
cians more accountable to the people, and spreading education “for 
free.” Radio, then, would do nothing less than resurrect the values of the 
early Republic and, through the power of technology, restore their pri- 
macy in an era of monopolistic capitalism. 

In the pages of the press, those who stood to benefit financially from 
radio were able to downplay potential remuneration and to emphasize 
their humanitarian goals and their commitment to “give the people what 
they want.” Marconi was a modest, selfless hero, and AT&T, in 1915, 
was a progressive-looking corporation primarily interested in bringing 
the benefits of modern technology to everyone. Neither Marconi nor Vail 
was described as a single-minded organization builder determined to 
establish his firm’s corporate hegemony; nor was it suggested that it was 
profits, not altruism, which fueled such a quest. The theme of altruism, 
insisting as it did that radio work was guided first and foremost by what 
“the people” needed and wanted, led to one of the basic myths support- 
ing broadcasting programming since the 1920s. According to the myth, 
broadcasters are servants of the people, giving the people what they 
want to hear or see. Because the people can turn their dial, or shut their 
radio (or television) off entirely, it is the audience, the myth asserts, 
which ultimately has control over programming content. This illusion of 
power residing with the audience rather than with the broadcasters was 
perpetuated in countless articles in the early 1920s and emerged out of 
the journalistic conventions that cast radio as an agent of altruism, re- 
stored democracy, and individual control. References to democracy and 
to audience participation equated consumption with power. The early 
1920s may have been the historical period when the myth of audience 
power, which rested on the myth of consumer choice, became reified and 
held up as evidence that Americans possessed unprecedented political 
and economic freedom. This myth masked the corporate acquisition of 
control over the content and patterns of mass communication in America, 
and thus veiled the less romantic and less appealing realities of industrial 
capitalism. 


THE EMERGENCE AND the tenacity of such myths, and the economic 
and political systems that sustain them, are best understood by linking 
behind-the-scenes developments in laboratories and offices with the pub- 


• 321 ■ 



Epilogue 


lie portrayal of those developments in the popular press. This is why a 
historical approach that regards technology as socially constructed is so 
useful, for it requires one to consider how individuals and institutions 
shaped the design of machines, and to analyze how the uses to which 
machines are put have been legitimated in the culture at large. The social 
construction approach demands that we integrate institutional and eco- 
nomic history, individual biography, and the history of technology with a 
critical perspective on how certain ideas and belief systems became 
dominant. It requires that the history of technology be construed as 
cultural history in the broadest possible sense. My aim has been to use 
this sort of interdisciplinary approach and to show that it is the best way 
to reconstruct and analyze the connections between technology and 
ideology, and, thus, between the rise and maintenance of power. 

Although a great deal has changed in American broadcasting over 
the past sixty years, much that was established between 1899 and 1922 
remains the same. Major corporations control both broadcasting tech- 
nology and access to the spectrum, and they shape what kinds of mes- 
sages we get and the range of ideas to which we are exposed in the public 
sphere. Corporate-military cooperation in the development of commu- 
nications technology has reached unprecedented and some would say 
unsettling proportions. And the myths and heroes through which the 
mass media justify this state of affairs are strikingly similar to those 
devised at the beginning of the century. We are still told how much 
control we have over media content, that what we get is what we 
demand and want, and that the media are our servants. We are told that 
because there are at least three networks, plus cable, we have access to a 
wide diversity of information and perspectives. News stories about 
emerging technologies, from computers to SDI, are presented as if the 
stories are completely objective, free of value judgments about who 
should control technology and why. Just as the press helped shape the 
early history of radio, so do the mass media today define and delimit the 
public discourses surrounding how technology is, and should be, embed- 
ded in work and leisure, in the existing power structure, and in our very 
thoughts. 


■ 322 • 


NOTES 


Collections frequently cited have been identified by the following abbreviations: 

Clark Collection. Also referred to as “Hadioana,” the name George Clark gave the 
collection of correspondence, photographs, reminiscences, press releases, and 
articles pertaining to the history of radio which he spent thirty years amassing and 
organizing. Located in the Archives Center, National Museum of American Histo- 
ry, Smithsonian Institution. 

NC PAPERS. Reginald Fessenden Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, 
North Carolina. 

Chelmsford Collection. Company archives, Marconi Company Limited, Chelmsford, 
England. 

GMB Private Collection. Letters in the possession of Guglielmo Marconi’s daughter, 
Gioia Marconi Braga. 

NA. National Archives. All material cited is from Record Group 19, File 18301. 

INTRODUCTION 

1. “Radio — The New Social Force,” Outlook , Mar. 19, 1924, 465. 

2. The term and the concept are from Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The 
Social Construction of Reality (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966). 

3. See Herbert J. Gans, Deciding What’s News (New York: Vintage Books, 1980); 
Gaye Tuchman, Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality (New York: 
Free Press, 1978); and Todd Gitlin, The Whole World Is Watching (Berkeley and 
Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980). 

4. Jurgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975). 

5. Exceptions include Daniel J. Czitrom, Media and the American Mind (Chapel 
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982); and Wyn Wachhorst, Thomas 
Alva Edison: An American Myth (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981). 

6. John F. Kasson, Civilizing the Machine (New York: Grossman, 1976), 187-90; 
Ray Ginger, Age of Excess (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 152-53. 

7. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the 


323 


Notes to Pages xxii-4 


American Industrial Enterprise (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1962); and idem, The 
Visible Hand . The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge: 
Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1977). 

8. Chandler, Visible Hand, 332; and Thomas Cochran, Business in American Life: A 
History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972), 152-59. 

9. David F. Noble, America by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corpo- 
rate Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979). 

10. Louis Galambos, The Public Image of Big Business in America, 1880—1940 (Bal- 
timore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 5. 

1 1 . Robert H. Weibe, The Search for Order (New York: Hill & Wang, 1967), chap. 5, 
“A New Middle Class”; Neil Harris, “The Lamp of Learning: Popular Lights and 
Shadows,” in The Organization of Knowledge in Modem America, 1 860- 1 920, 
ed. Alexandra Oleson and John Voss (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 
1979), 431. 

12. Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American News- 
papers (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 67. 

13. Edwin and Michael Emery, The Press and America, 5th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, 
N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984), 231. 

14. Ibid., 253-67. 

15. Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 
1984), chap. 3. 

16. Ibid., 256. For an elegant discussion of the relationship between the rise of the 
middle class and the rise of the press, see James W. Carey, “Criticism and the 
Press,” Review of Politics 36 (April 1974): 228-29. 

17. The evolution of and characteristics associated with the self-made man are de- 
scribed in Irvin G. Wylie, The Self-Made Man in America (New Brunswick, N.J. ; 
Rutgers University Press, 1954) ; for an excellent discussion of the magazine hero, 
see Theodore P. Greene, America’s Heroes (New York: Oxford University Press, 
1970). 

18. Kasson, Civilizing the Machine, 39-42. 

19. Galambos found that “in the 1880s and early 1890s, Jay Gould and the Vander- 
bilts had been the major symbols of corporate business, and both names bore a 
heavy legacy of negative connotations” ( Public Image, 181). 

20. Czitrom, Media, 8-9. 

21. Cited in Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, vol. 4; 1885-1905 
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), 11. Mott estimates that after the 
Civil War, the number of magazines nearly doubled every ten years until the total 
reached approximately 5,500 by 1900. 

ONE: MARCONI AND THE AMERICA’S CUP 

1. Quoted in Webster’s Guide to American History (Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. 
Merriam, 1971), 428. 

2. Wyn Wachhorst, Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth (Cambridge: MIT 
Press, 1981), 15. 

3. James Oliver Robertson, American Myth, American Reality (New York: Hill & 


324 


Notes to Pages 4-11 


Wang, 1980), 174-80; Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America (New 
York: Hill & Wang, 1982), 5. 

4. For more information on Dewey see Mark Sullivan, Our Times, vol. 1, The Turn of 
the Century, 1900-1904 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926), 309-43; 
and Ronald Spector, Admiral of the New Empire (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State 
University Press, 1974). 

5. New York Tribune, Sept. 30, 1899, 6, and Oct. 1, 1899, 1. 

6. New York Herald, Oct. 1, 1899, 1. 

7. Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 30, 1899, 954; James Barnes, “The Story of Dewey’s 
Welcome Home,” Outlook, Oct. 7, 1899, 299; “Admiral Dewey as a National 
Hero,” Century Magazine, Oct. 1899, 928. 

8. Ernest Knaufft, “Dewey Day Decorations in New York,” Review of Reviews, Oct. 
1899, 458-62. 

9. John Barrett, “Admiral George Dewey,” Harper’s Monthly, Oct. 1899, 812. 

10. Ibid.; “Dewey’s Home-Coming,” Outlook, Oct. 7, 1899, 291; Winston Churchill, 
“Admiral Dewey: A Character Sketch,” Review of Reviews, June 1898, 686; 
Barnes, “Story of Dewey’s Welcome Home,” 299. 

11. New York Herald, Oct. 1, 1899, 4. 

12. Barrett, “Admiral George Dewey,” 800. 

13. Ibid., 799. 

14. Harper’s Weekly, Sept. 30, 1899, 954. 

15. There were striking similarities between the celebrations for Dewey and for 
Lindbergh. See John W. Ward, “The Meaning of Lindbergh’s Flight,” American 
Quarterly 10 (Spring 1958): 7. 

16. See Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980). 

17. Popular Science Monthly 56, no. 1 (1899): 26. 

18. “The New Century,” Nature 63, no. 1627 (1901): 221. 

19. “A Century of Progress in the United States,” Scientific American 83, no. 26 
(1900): 400-402. 

20. Popular Science Monthly 52 (Dec. 1897): 263. 

21. Don C. Seitz, The fames Gordon Bennetts (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1928), 
372. 

22. John Tebbel, The Media m America (New York: Mentor, 1974), 184; Michael 
Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers 
(New York: Basic Books, 1978), 31-35. 

23. New York Herald, Oct. 1, 1899, sec. 4, 3. 

24. Ibid., 1. 

25. William Bissing, “Telegraphy without Line Wires,” Electrical World 33, no. 2 
(1899): 55. 

26. For more detailed information on Henry, Faraday, and Maxwell, see Electrical 
World 33, no. 2 (1899): 56; “The Wireless Telegraph,” New York Times, Apr. 9, 
1899, 22; David Keith Chalmers MacDonald, Faraday, Maxwell, and Kelvin 
(Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1964); Rollo Appleyard, Pioneers of Electrical 
Communications (London: Macmillan, 1930); Alvin F. Harlow, Old Wires and 
New Waves (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1936); W. Rupert Maclaurin, In- 
vention and Innovation in the Radio Industry (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 


325 



Notes to Pages 11-20 


9-15; R.A.R. Tricker, The Contributions of Faraday and Maxwell to Electrical 
Science (New York: Pergamon Press, 1966); Hugh G. J. Aitken, Syntony and 
Spark: The Origins of Radio (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1976). 

27. For a more complete discussion of these experiments on induction, see J. J. Fahie, 
A History of Wireless Telegraphy (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1900). See also Elliot 
N. Sivowitch, “A Technological Survey of Broadcasting’s ‘Pre-History,’ 1876- 
1920,” Journal of Broadcasting 15, no. 1 (1970-71). 

28. This information is from The Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York: 
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 9:204. 

29. Seethe article on von Helmholtz in ibid., 6:242-43; see also Friedrich Kuryloand 
Charles Susskind, Ferdinand Braun: A Life of the Nobel Prizewinner and In- 
ventor of the Cathode-Ray Oscilloscope (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981). 

30. For an elegant and more complete discussion of Hertz, see Aitken’s chapter on 
Hertz in Syntony and Spark, 48-74; also H. Hertz, “On the Mechanical Actions 
of Electrical Waves Propagated in Conductors,” Electrical World 58, no. 4 (1891): 
66; “Hermann von Helmholtz, ’’Electrical World20, no. 10 (1892): 144; Electrical 
World 23, no. 4 (1894): 107; W. J. Baker, A History of the Marconi Company 
(London: Methuen, 1970), 18-20; Maclaurin, Invention and Innovation, 15-17. 

31. New York Times, May 7, 1898, 12. 

32. Announcement of Lodge’s coherer appears in Electrical World 24, no. 1 (1894); 
see Aitken, Syntony and Spark, 103-8. 

33. Arthur V. Abbott, “Electrical Radiation — III,” Electrical World 33, no. 21 (1899): 
701. 

34. Information on Marconi is from Degna Marconi, My Father, Marconi (New York: 
McGraw-Hill, 1962), chaps. 1-5; Keith Geddes, Guglielmo Marconi, 1874-1937 
(London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1974). 

35. Marconi, My Father, 22-23. 

36. Ibid., 13, 21-22. 

37. For contemporary descriptions of Marconi’s apparatus, see Electrical World 30, 
no. 5 (1897): 138; 33, no. 13 (1899): 417; and 33, no. 4 (1899): 110. Also, New 
York Times, May 26, 1897, 6, and May 7, 1898, 12. 

38. Geddes, Guglielmo Marconi, 5; Baker, History of the Marconi Company, 26. 

39. New York Times, May 26, 1897, 6. 

40. Aitken, Syntony and Spark, 224; Geddes, Guglielmo Marconi, 9. 

41. Geddes, Guglielmo Marconi, 11. 

42. Electrical World 33, no. 12 (1899): 377. 

43. New York Times, Mar. 29, 1899, 1. 

44. New York Herald, Oct. 1, 1899, sec. 4, 1. 

45. Ibid. 

46. Ibid., 7. 

47. Marconi’s Reminiscences of the American Tests, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 72. 

48. New York Herald, Oct. 6, 1899, 7. 

49. New York Tribune, Mar. 30, 1899, 8. 

50. New York Herald, Oct. 1, 1899, sec. 5, 4 

51. New York Times, Jan. 14, 1902, 1; and Jan. 15, 1902, 8. 

52. New York Herald, Oct. 4, 1899, 7. 


326 



Notes to Pages 20-32 


53. See Electrical World, 39, no. 9 (1902): 387; New York Times, Jan. 25, 1903, 10. 
Marconi’s conviction that his inventions were not derivative, but represented 
original technological breakthroughs, comes across in company and personal cor- 
respondence, and in patent applications. 

54. Marconi’s Reminiscences. 

55. New York Tribune, Sept. 22, 1899, 6. 

56. Marconi, My Father, 34, 49-50. 

57. Electrical World 40, no. 13 (1902): 485. 

58. Ibid., 33, no. 20 (1899): 643. 

59. The term technological display comes from Michael L. Smith’s excellent article 
“Selling the Moon: The U.S. Manned Space Program and the Triumph of Com- 
modity Scientism,” in The Culture of Consumption, ed. Richard Wightman Fox 
and T. J. Jackson Lears (New York: Pantheon, 1983). 

60. New York Times, Nov. 5, 1897, 6. 

61. Popular Science Monthly 56, no. 1 (1899): 72. 

62. New York Herald, Oct. 4, 1899, 7. 

63. Daniel J. Czitrom, Media and the American Mind (Chapel Hill: University of 
North Carolina Press, 1982), 3. 

64. Popular Science Monthly 56, no. 1 (1899): 72. 

65. New York Times, May 7, 1899, 20. 

66. P. T. McGrath, “Authoritative Account of Marconi’s Work in Wireless Telegra- 
phy,” Century Magazine, Mar. 1902, 782. 

67. Czitrom, Media, 21-29. 

68. New York Times, Aug. 15, 1899, 6. 

69. New York Herald, Oct. 2, 1899, 8. 

70. New York Times, Mar. 9, 1902, 6. 

71. Ibid., May 1, 1902, 8. 

72. Ibid., Aug. 15, 1899, 6; New York Herald, Oct. 2, 1899, 8. 

73. New York Times, May 7, 1899, 20. 

74. Electrical World 34, no. 20 (1899): 730. 

TWO: COMPETITION OVER WIRELESS TECHNOLOGY 

1. See Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, The Formation of the American Scientific Communi- 
ty: The American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1848-1860 (Ur- 
bana: University of Illinois Press, 1976), 17-22. See also David F. Noble, America 
by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism (New 
York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 20-49. 

2. Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), 17-19. 

3. Wyn Wachhorst, Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth (Cambridge: MIT 
Press, 1981), 35. 

4. Electrical World 30, no. 7 (1897): 181. 

5. Ibid., 31, no. 2 (1898): 75; 30, no. 18 (1897). 

6. Ibid., 32, no. 7(1898): 166. 

7. Ibid., 30, no. 7 (1897): 182. 

8. New York Times, Dec. 16, 1901, 9. 


327 



Notes to Pages 32-42 


9. Electrical World 33, no. 14 (1899): 444. 

10. New York Times, Jan. 19, 1903, 1. 

11. Ibid., May 7, 1899, 20; Electrical World 33, no. 14 (1899): 444. 

12. New York Times, Mar. 23, 1902, 6. 

13. For a more elegant and detailed discussion of this process, see Hugh G. J. Aitken, 
Syntony and Spark: The Origins of Radio (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1976), 
198-99. 

14. Marconi to H. Cuthbert Hall, Aug. 22, 1902, GMB Private Collection. 

15. Ibid., Oct. 1, 1902, GMB Private Collection. 

16. For a discussion of the impact of personalities within organizational settings and 
the dynamic relationships between individual entrepreneurs and business bu- 
reaucracies, see Harold C. Livesay, “Entrepreneurial Persistence through the Bu- 
reaucratic Age,” Business History Review 51, no. 4 (1977): 415-43. 

17. Marconi’s daughter observes that some people meeting Marconi for the first time 
found him to be taciturn and difficult to know. See Degna Marconi, My Father, 
Marconi (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962), 50. 

18. Ibid., 49. 

19. See, for example, Marconi’s letters to Hall, in which he praises his manager’s 
diligence and compliments his skill in drafting and explaining contracts. Marconi 
to H. Cuthbert Hall, Aug. 20, 1901, and June 19, 1906, GMB Private Collection. 

20. Ibid., Oct. 1, 1902, GMB Private Collection. 

21. A much more detailed and sophisticated discussion of Lodge's work appears in 
Aitken, Syntony and Spark, 80-168. 

22. W. J. Baker, A History of the Marconi Company (London: Methuen, 1970), 54; 
Electrical World 37, no. 11 (1901); 453; Aitken, Syntony and Spark, 250. 

23. Electrical World 37, no. 25 (1901): 1082. 

24. A. Frederick Collins, “The Lodge-Muirhead System of Wireless Telegraphy,” 
Electrical World 42, no. 5 (1903): 174; idem, “Coherers: The Development, 
Construction, Operation, and Function of Electric Wave Detectors, Electrical 
World 38, no. 7 (1901): 252; B. T. Judkins cited in George H. Clark, “The Life and 
Creations of John Stone Stone” (1946), 70, Clark Collection. 

25. Electrical World 41, no. 15 (1903): 613. 

26. E. Rutherford, “A Magnetic Detector of Electrical Waves and Some of Its Applica- 
tions,” Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. (London) 189A (1897); also Proc. Roy. Soc. (London) 
60 (1896); George W. Pierce, Principles of Wireless Telegraphy (New York: 
McGraw-Hill, 1910), 145-46. 

27. Elmer E. Bucher, Practical Wireless Telegraphy (New York: Wireless Press, 
1917), 148; Rupert Stanley, Text Book on Wireless Telegraphy (New York: Long- 
mans, Green, 1914), 220. 

28. Marconi to H. Cuthbert Hall, June 9, 1902, GMB Private Collection. 

29. Noble, America by Design, 95—97. 

30. Recent scholarship is focusing more on this type of man, the entrepreneur within 
the organizational structure. See Livesay, “Entrepreneurial Persistence,” and also 
Leonard S. Reich, “Irving Langmuir and the Pursuit of Science and Technology in 
the Corporate Environment,” Technology and Culture 24, no. 2 (1983): 199-221. 

31. There is no scholarly biography of Fessenden. The following material is based on 


328 



Notes to Pages 42-52 


the bitter and defensive biography written by his wife, Helen Fessenden, Fes- 
senden: Builder of Tomorrows (New York: Coward-McCann, 1940). 

32. Ibid., 22. Hugh G. J. Aitken first brought my attention to the probability that 
Fessenden never received a college degree. 

33. James E. Brittain, author of a forthcoming biography of Ernst Alexanderson, 
brought this connection to my attention. James Brittain to the author, Sept. 10, 
1979. 

34. James E. Brittain, “The Alexanderson Alternator: An Encounter between Radio 
Physics and Electrical Power Engineering” (Paper delivered before the Society 
for the History of Technology, Oct. 31, 1982), 3. 

35. Fessenden, Fessenden, 74. 

36. See Report of the Chief of the Weather Bureau in the Annual Reports of the 
Department of Agriculture (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office), 
1898-1900. 

37. Fessenden, Fessenden, 83. 

38. A. Frederick Collins, “Fessenden’s Work in Wireless Telegraphy," Electrical World 
42, no. 12 (1903): 475; Gleason Archer, The History of Radio to 1926 (New York: 
American Historical Society, 1938), 68; A. P. Morgan, Wireless Telegraphy and 
Telephony (New York: Norman W. Henley, 1912), 58-59. 

39. Stanley, Text Book, 66 70; James Brittain to the author, Sept. 10, 1979. 

40. Fessenden to Charles Steinmetz, June 1, 1900, NC Papers. 

41. Ibid., Feb. 10, 1901, NC Papers. 

42. Charles Steinmetz to Reginald Fessenden, July 16, 1901, Clark Collection. 

43. WFH at General Electric to Fessenden, Aug. 30, 1905, Clark Collection. 

44. Fessenden to Charles Steinmetz, July 3, 1901, NC Papers. 

45. The two biographies of De Forest, the first virtually ghostwritten by the inventor, 
and the second an autobiography, are characterized by their fervid, melodramatic 
prose and their historical unreliability. These are Georgette Cameal, Conqueror 
of Space: The Life of Lee De Forest (New York: Horace Li veright, 1930), and Lee 
De Forest, Father of Radio (Chicago: Wilcox & Follett, 1950). The best source on 
De Forest remains Samuel Lubell’s “Magnificent Failure,” published in three suc- 
cessive issues of the Saturday Evening Post in January 1942. De Forest’s diaries 
are available at the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, and through Yale 
University. This discussion is based on Lubell and the diaries. 

46. See Wachhorst, Thomas Alva Edison, 23-25. 

47. Lubell, “Magnificent Failure,” Jan. 17, 1942, 78. 

48. De Forest to Marconi, Sept. 22, 1899, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 1. 

49. Electrical World 40, no. 6 (1902): 227; New York Times, July 25, 1902, 8; Car- 
neal, Conqueror of Space, 110; Donald McNicol, Radio's Conquest of Space 
(New York: Murray Hill Books, 1946), 115; Ellison Hawks, Pioneers of Wireless 
(London: Methuen, 1927), 261-74; George G. Blake, History of Radio Telegra- 
phy and Telephony (London: Chapman & Hall, 1928), 82—83. 

50. Material on Stone is from Clark’s “Life and Creations of John Stone Stone”; 
Clark’s manuscript was published by Frye & Smith, San Diego, Calif., in 1946. 

51. Ibid , 23-25. 

52. Ibid., 55-67, 78, 103. 


329 


Notes to Pages 54-64 


53. Electrical World 38, no. 25 (1901): 1024. 

54. Scientific American 86, no. 1 (1902): 4. 

55. Electrical World 36, no. 16 (1900): 618. 

56. G. H. Barbour, “Recent Practices in Wireless Station Construction,” Electrical 
World 49, no. 9 (1907): 438. 

57. New York Times, Dec. 16, 1901, 9; Electrical World 46, no. 8 (1905): 294. 

58. H. Cuthbert Hall to Marconi, Nov. 27, 1901, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 80. 

59. Baker, History of the Marconi Company, 66. 

60. Henry Herbert McClure, “Messages to Mid-Ocean; Marconi’s Own Story of His 
Latest Triumph,” McClure’s Magazine 23 (April 1902): 526. 

61. H. Cuthbert Hall to Marconi, July 12, 1901, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 77. 

62. Electrical World 38, no. 15 (1901): 596-97. 

63. Scientists doubt whether Marconi received this signal. See J. A. Ratcliffe, “Scien- 
tists’ Reactions to Marconi’s Transatlantic Signal," Proc. Inst. Elect. Engineers 
(England) 121, no. 9 (1974): 1033-38. 

64. Scientific American 86, no. 1 (1902): 2. 

65. Carl Snyder, “Wireless Telegraphy and Signor Marconi’s Triumph,” Review of 
Reviews 25 (Feb. 1902): 173. 

66. Ibid., 174. 

67. P. T. McGrath, “Marconi and His Transatlantic Signal,” Century Magazine 63, 
(Mar. 1902): 775. 

68. Ray Stannard Baker, “Marconi’s Achievement,” McClure’s Magazine 18 (Feb. 
1902). 

69. Snyder, “Wireless Telegraphy,” 173. 

70. Lee De Forest, Diary, Dec. 22, 1901, and Jan. 13, 1902, Library of Congress. 

71. Electrical World 39, no. 1 (1902): 31. 

72. Ibid., 38, no. 25 (1901): 1023, 1011. 

THREE: VISIONS AND BUSINESS REALITIES OF THE INVENTORS 

1. Thomas R. Navin and Marian V. Sears, “The Rise of a Market for Industrial 
Securities, 1887-1902," Business History Review 29 (June 1955): 106. This thor- 
ough and extremely clear article describes the relationship between the merger 
movement and the expansion of the industrial securities market in much more 
detail. 

2. Ray Ginger, Age of Excess (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 218-19; Robert Sobel, 
The Big Board: A History of the New York Stock Market (New York: Free Press, 
1965), 149-56. 

3. Mark Sullivan, Our Times, vol. 2, America Finding Herself (New York: Charles 
Scribner’s Sons, 1927), 2:358. 

4. Ibid., 359. Alexander Dana Noyes, Forty Years of American Finance (New York: 
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1909), 294-301; idem, The Market Place (Boston: Little, 
Brown, 1938), 195. 

5. Carl Snyder, “Wireless Telegraphy and Signor Marconi’s Triumph,” Review of 
Reviews 25 (Feb. 1902): 173. 

6. Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the 


330 



Notes to Pages 65-75 


American Industrial Enterprise (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1962), 1-17. 

7. C. H. Taylor to Degna Marconi, Aug. 7, 1952, GMB Prvate Collection. 

8. New York Times, Nov. 23, 1899, 1. 

9. For a more detailed study of the British company see W. J. Baker, A History of the 
Marconi Company (London: Methuen, 1970). 

10. This comes across especially clearly in his letters to H. Cuthbert Hall. See Marconi 
to Hall, Nov. 26, 1902, June 25, 1906. Aug. 6, 1906, all in GMB Private Collec- 
tion. 

11. Marconi to H. Cuthbert Hall, Mar. 15, 1903, GMB Private Collection. 

12. John Bottomley, Minutes of Regular Quarterly Meeting of the Board of Directors, 
Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, June 9, 1903, Chelmsford 
Collection, HIS 237. 

13. H. Cuthbert Hall to Marconi, July 1, 1901, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 80. 

14. Baker, History of the Marconi Company, 42. 

15. Ibid., 59. For the best discussion of this subject, see the chapter on Marconi in 
Hugh G. J. Aitken, Syntony and Spark: The Origins of Radio (New York: John 
Wiley & Sons, 1976), esp. 233. 

16. Baker, History of the Marconi Company, 59. 

17. Marconi to H. Cuthbert Hall, Aug. 20, 1901, GMB Private Collection. 

18. Aitken, Syntony and Spark, 239. 

19. New York Times, Mar. 30, 1902, 2. 

20. W. W. Bradfield to C. A. Butlin, Director of General Posts and Telegraphs, Santo 
Domingo, Feb. 23, 1902, Clark Collection. 

21. New York Times, Oct. 8, 1901, 3. 

22. H. Cuthbert Hall to Marconi, Apr. 25, 1904, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 81. 

23. Marconi to H. Cuthbert Hall, July 11, 1904, GMB Private Collection. 

24. John Bottomley to H. Cuthbert Hall, Jan. 19, 1906, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 
235. 

25. Undated, unsigned memo on the Babylon, Long Island, Station, Chelmsford Col- 
lection, HIS 79. 

26. Bottomley, Minutes of Regular Quarterly Meeting of the Board of Directors, June 
9, 1903. 

27. J. D. Jerrold Kelley, Chairman, Executive Committee of the Marconi Wireless 
Telegraph Company of America, to Marconi, May 21, 1902, Chelmsford Collec- 
tion, HIS 235. 

28. “Marconi Wireless Telegraphy: A Record of Its Achievements, Complements of 
Munroe and Munroe” (1903), Clark Collection. 

29. E. H. Moeran to Florence S. Hoyt, Jan. 25, 1902, quoted in George Clark’s 
abstracts of Marconi Company letters, Clark Collection. 

30. E. H. Moeran to the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, Jan. 7 and Feb. 7, 
1902, quoted in Clark abstracts, Clark Collection. 

31. Bottomley, Minutes of Regular Quarterly Meeting of the Board of Directors, June 
9, 1903. 

32. E. H. Moeran to G. Kemp, Sept. 27, 1901, Clark abstracts, Clark Collection. 

33. E. H. Moeran to Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, Oct. 1, 1901, Clark ab- 
stracts, Clark Collection. 


331 


Notes to Pages 75—87 


34. Bottomley, Minutes of Regular Quarterly Meeting of the Board of Directors, June 
9, 1903. 

35. Minutes of Meeting of Board of Directors of Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company 
of America, undated but probably 1910, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 237. 

36. Marconi to H. Cuthbert Hall, Sept. 4, 1903, GMB Private Collection. 

37. W. H. Bentley, Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, to G. Branchi, 
Italian Consul General, Jan. 13, 1904, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 235. 

38. New York Times, Dec. 21, 1902, 1, and Jan. 20, 1903, 1. 

39. Construction began in 1902. See New York Times, Apr. 30, 1902, 1. 

40. John Bottomley to Marconi, Aug. 31, 1905, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 235. 

41. W. H. Bentley to Board of Directors, Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of 
America, Apr. 22, 1904, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 235. 

42. John Bottomley to H. Cuthbert Hall, Feb. 20, 1906, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 
235. 

43. Ibid., Jan. 19, 1906, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 235. 

44. Marconi to H. Cuthbert Hall, Oct. 27, 1904, GMB Private Collection. 

45. Cleveland Abbe (on behalf of Willis Moore) to Fessenden, Dec. 21, 1899, Clark 
Collection. 

46. Fessenden to President Theodore Roosevelt, June 16, 1902, NC Papers. 

47. Telegram from Willis Moore to Fessenden, July 31, 1902, NC Papers. 

48. Fessenden to Hay Walker, Jr., Nov. 16, 1903, NC Papers. 

49. Ibid., July 6, 1904, NC Papers. 

50. Ibid., Oct. 19, 1904, NC Papers. 

51 George H. Clark, “The Life and Creations of John Stone Stone” (1946), 91, Clark 
Collection. 

52. Fessenden to Ernst Berg, Jan. 2, 1904; Berg to Fessenden, Jan. 5, 1904; Fessenden 
to Berg, Jan. 14, 1904; Clark Collection. 

53. Fessenden to E. W. Rice, Mar. 17, 1904; Rice to H. W. Young, NESCO Sales 
Manager, June 27, 1904; Clark Collection. 

54. Hay Walker, Jr., to Fessenden, July 21, 1905, NC Papers. 

55. A. A. Isbell to W. J. Glaubitz, Jan. 27, Feb. 1, and Apr. 25, 1905; Isbell to NESCO 
headquarters, Washington, D.C., June 22, 1905; Clark Collection. 

56. M. F. Westover to Fessenden, Dec. 1, 1905, Clark Collection. 

57. Fessenden to Hay Walker, Jr., Oct. 15, 1903, NC Papers. 

58. Ibid., and Nov. 16, 1903, NC Papers. 

59. Ibid., Jan. 19, 1904, NC Papers. 

60. Sam Scoggins to Fessenden, May 3, 1904, NC Papers. 

61. Fessenden to Hay Walker, Jr., Oct. 17, 1903, NC Papers. 

62. Ibid., Oct. 19, 1904, NC Papers. 

63. Ibid., Jan. 4, 1905. 

64. Mr. Dean to Hay Walker, Jr., Dec. 9, 1903, NC Papers. 

65. Fessenden to Hay Walker, Jr., Nov. 4, 1904, NC Papers. 

66. Hay Walker, Jr., to Fessenden, July 7, 1904, NC Papers. 

67. Fessenden to Hay Walker, Jr., Oct. 4, 1903, NC Papers; Charles Bright to Fes- 
senden, Jan. 24, 1907, and Memorandum, NESCO to Lloyd’s, May 1, 1906, Clark 
Collection. 


332 


Notes to Pages 88-103 


68. Hay Walker, Jr., to Fessenden, June 10, 1904, NC Papers. 

69. Fessenden to Hay Walker, Jr., June 13, 1904, NC Papers. 

70. Thomas Given to Fessenden, Mar. 11, 1905, NC Papers. 

71. Fessenden vs. NESCO, Affidavits for Complainant in Reply (1911), 60, NC Papers. 

72. Hay Walker, Jr., to Fessenden, June 17, 1905, NC Papers. 

73. Memorandum, Expenses of NESCO, May 10, 1906, NC Papers. 

74. I lay Walker, Jr., to Fessenden, Feb. 23, 1905, NC Papers. 

75. Ibid., May 16, 1904, NC Papers. 

76. See, for example, W. Rupert Maclaurin, Invention and Innovation in the Radio 
Industry (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 59, 62. 

77. Fessenden to Marconi, Oct. 6, 1899, Chelmsford Collection, HIS 2. 

78. New York Times, Dec. 18, 1899, 1. 

79. Fessenden to Hay Walker, Jr., July 6, 1904, NC Papers. 

80. Lee De Forest, Diary, Dec. 1, 1901, Library of Congress. 

81. Ibid., July 20, 1902. 

82. Ibid., Jan. 13 and Feb. 9, 1902. 

83. Samuel Lubell, “Magnificent Failure,” Saturday Evening Post, Jan. 24, 1942, 21. 

84. De Forest, Diary, Feb. 9, 1902. 

85. New York Times, Feb. 8, 1903, 12. 

86. Lubell, “Magnificent Failure,” 35; Frank Fayant, “The Wireless Telegraph Bub- 
ble,” Success 10, no. 157 (1907): 508. 

87. Current Literature 53, no. 6 (1907): 677; John Firth Scrapbook on Wireless, Clark 
Collection. 

88. Original De Forest stock promotion material in the Clark Collection; see also 
Frank Fayant, “Fools and Their Money,” Success 10, no. 152 (1907): 9—11. 

89. FI. J. Brown, De Forest operator, to John Firth, Apr. 26, 1904; John Firth, “Story 
of My Life,” 1937, Clark Collection; New York Times, July 3, 1904, 8. 

90. Wireless News (New York) 1, no. 2 (1903), Clark Collection. 

91. Roy Mason, “The History of the Development of the United Fruit Company’s 
Radio Telegraph System,” Radio Broadcast, Sept. 1922, 377-78. 

92. Ibid., 378-80. 

93. Notes by Abraham White to George Clark, Oct. 1941, Clark Collection. 

94. Lubell, “Magnificent Failure,” 35. 

95. New York Times, May 1, 1902, 8. 

96. Ibid., Sept. 6, 1904, 2, Sept. 11, 1902, 12, and Nov. 12, 1904. 1; Electrical World 
44, no. 10 (1904). 

97. Clark, “Life and Creations of John Stone Stone,” 1. 

98. Ibid., 65-71. 

FOUR: WIRELESS TELEGRAPHY IN THE NEW NAVY 

1. See, for example, Gleason Archer, The History of Radio to 1926 (New York: 
American Historical Society, 1938), 76. 

2. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1915, 42-43. 

3. Robert Seager II, “Ten Years before Mahan: The Unofficial Case for the New 
Navy, 1880-1890,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 40 (Dec. 1953): 503. 


333 


Notes to Pages 103-9 


4. Ibid. 

5. Review of Reviews 19 (May 1899): 554. For more information see also Captain 
Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 
(Boston: Little, Brown, 1890), and the many contemporary reviews printed in 
such magazines as Blackwood’s Magazine 148 (Oct. 1890): 576; Atlantic (Oct. 
1890): 563; Living Age 187 (Nov. 1890): 401. 

6. Ray Ginger, Age of Excess (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 159. 

7. Cited in G. S. Clark, “Captain Mahan’s Counsels to the United States,” Nineteenth 
Century 43 (Feb. 1898): 293. 

8. Mahan, Influence of Sea Power, 83. 

9. Seager, “Ten Years before Mahan,” 497. 

10. “The Rebuilt Navy of the United States: A Letter from Mr. Roosevelt,” Review of 
Reviews 17 (Jan. 1898): 68. 

11. Electrical World 49, no. 2 (1907): 83. 

12. Ibid., 38, no. 25 (1901): 1012. 

13. Elting Morison, Men, Machines, and Modem Times (Cambridge: MIT Press, 
1966), 98—122; Lance C. Buhl, “Mariners and Machines: Resistance to Tech- 
nological Change in the American Navy, 1865-1869," Journal of American Histo- 
ry 61, no. 4 (1974): 704; and Harold and Margaret Sprout, The Rise of American 
Naval Power, 1776-1918 (Princeton: Pnnceton University Press, 1939), 165- 
82. 

14. Sprout, Rise of American Naval Power, 270-80, and illus. facing 218. 

15. At the turn of the century, these were: Bureau of Navigation, Bureau of Ordnance, 
Bureau of Equipment, Bureau of Construction and Repairs, Bureau of Steam 
Engineering, Bureau of Yards and Docks, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Bureau 
of Supplies and Accounts. 

16. Charles Oscar Paullin, Paullin’s History of Naval Administration, 1775-1911 
(Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1968), 438; Sprout, Rise of American 
Naval Power, 274; Robert Greenhalgh Albion, Makers of Naval Policy, 1798- 
1947 (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1980), 7, 12. 

17. Sprout, Rise of American Naval Power, 193. 

18. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1905, 3; Sprout, Rise of American 
Naval Power, 193. 

19. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1900, 1905. 

20. Albion, Makers of Naval Policy, 212-13; Annual Report of the Secretary of the 
Navy, 1909, 6. 

21. Sprout, Rise of American Naval Power, 274, 271. 

22. Ibid., 168; Alfred Thayer Mahan, From Sail to Steam: Recollections on Naval Life 
(New York: Harper, 1908), 270. 

23. Prior to 1907, squadrons were organized into fleets on a temporary basis, as 
during the Spanish- American War. 

24. L. S. Howeth, History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy 
(Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1963). 

25. Paullin, Paullin’s History, 447. 

26. Albion, Makers of Naval Policy, 212-17. 


334 



Notes to Pages 110-16 


27. Howeth, History of Communications, 26. 

28. Lt. J. B. Blish, Report to Bureau of Equipment, Nov. 13, 1899, NA, box 83. 

29. Marconi to Wireless Board, Oct. 29, 1899, NA, box 83. 

30. George H. Clark, “Radio in War and Peace” (1940), 14, Clark Collection. 

31. Lt. Comdr. J. T. Newton, Report on the Marconi System, Nov. 13, 1899, NA, box 
83. 

32. Ibid. 

33. Lt. G. W. Denfeld to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, Nov. 1, 1899, NA, box 83. 

34. Adm. R. B. Bradford, Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Secretary of the Navy, Dec. 
1, 1899, NA, box 83. 

35. Ibid. 

36. William Moody, Secretary of the Navy, to the American Marconi Wireless Tele- 
graph Company, Sept. 25, 1903, NA, box 85. 

37. Comdr. F. M. Barber to Adm. R. B. Bradford, Chief, Bureau of Equipment, Dec. 6, 

1901, NA, box 83. 

38. Ibid., June 22, 1906, NA, box 90. 

39. John Bottomley, Minutes of Regular Quarterly Meeting of the Board of Directors, 
Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America, June 9, 1903, Chelmsford 
Collection, HIS 237. 

40. Naturally, there are exceptions to this characterization. Bradley A. Fiske and 
William S. Sims both developed various inventions during their naval careers. The 
difficulty Sims encountered in trying to get the navy to adopt continuous-aim 
firing is described in Morison, Men , Machines, and Modem Times, 17-44. Even 
Fiske “was inclined to the opinion that radio had no military usefulness what- 
ever” (Howeth, History of Communications, 65). 

41. Morison, Men, Machines, and Modem Times, 9. 

42. Hugh G. J. Aitken, Syntony and Spark: The Origins of Radio (New York: John 
Wiley & Sons, 1976), 322. 

43. Comdr. F. M. Barber to Adm. R. B. Bradford, Chief, Bureau of Equipment, Apr. 2, 

1902, NA, box 85. 

44. Ibid., Dec. 31, 1901, NA, box 84. 

45. Ibid., Jan. 30, 1902, NA, box 84. 

46. Ibid., Apr. 15, 1902, NA, box 85. 

47. Ibid., Feb. 19, 1902, NA, box 84. 

48. Ibid., Dec. 31, 1901, NA, box 84; July 29, 1902, NA, box 85; June 17, 1902, NA, 
box 85. 

49. Ibid., May 22, 1908, NA, box 89. 

50. Ibid., Nov. 28, 1901, NA, box 83. 

51. Ibid., Jan. 15, 1902, NA, box 84. 

52. Ibid., Apr. 22, 1902, NA, box 85. 

53. Ibid., Feb. 11, 1907, NA, box 89. 

54. Ibid., Jan. 20, 1902, NA, box 84. 

55. Adm. R. B. Bradford, Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Comdr. F. M. Barber, Jan. 
13, 1902, NA, box 84; Dec. 6, 1901, NA, box 83; Dec. 14, 1901, NA, box 83. 

56. Howeth, History of Communications, 52, 43. 


335 


Notes to Pages 116-22 


57. Clark, “Radio in War and Peace,” 33. 

58. Adm. R. B. Bradford, Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to the Secretary of the Navy, 
Dec. 13, 1902, NA, box 85. 

59. Adm. R. B. Bradford, Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Comdr. F. M. Barber, Apr. 
19, 1902, NA, box 84. 

60. Ibid. 

61. Comdr. F. M. Barber to Adm. R. B. Bradford, Chief, Bureau of Equipment, Apr. 4, 
1902, NA, box 86. 

62. Ibid., Dec. 6. 1902, NA, box 86. 

63. Ibid., Jan. 30, 1902, NA, box 84, and May 14, 1902, NA, box 88; Adm. R. B. 
Bradford Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Comdr. F. M. Barber, Feb. 11, 1902, NA, 
box 84. 

64. Slaby-Arco to Comdr. F. M. Barber, July 19, 1902, NA, box 84. 

65. Report, Wireless Telegraph Board, to Adm. R. B. Bradford Chief, Bureau of Equip- 
ment, Dec. 3, 1902, NA, box 85. 

66. Comdr. F. M. Barber to Adm. R. B. Bradford, Chief, Bureau of Equipment, Nov. 7, 
1902, NA, box 83. 

67. Clark, “Radio in War and Peace,” 35. 

68. Electrical World 43, no. 24 (1902). 

69. Fessenden to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, May 8, 1903, NA, box 85. 

70. Adm. R. B. Bradford, Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Fessenden, May 21, 1903, 
NA, box 85. 

71. Comdr. F. M. Barber to Adm. R, B. Bradford, Chief, Bureau of Equipment, Feb. 
18, 1908, NA, box 89. 

72. Adm. R. B. Bradford, Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Fessenden, May 21, 1903, 
SI. 

73. Fessenden to Lt. Hudgins, USS Topeka, May 26, 1903; Fessenden to Adm. Henry 
N. Manney, June 13, 1903, Clark Collection. 

74. Capt. C. H. Arnold, Wireless Telegraphy Board (on behalf of Bradford), to Fes- 
senden, June 7, 1903, Clark Collection. 

75. Charles Darling, Acting Secretary of the Navy, to NESCO, Dec. 15, 1903, Clark 
Collection. 

76. Electrical World 36, no. 5 (1900): 157. 

77. Ibid., 36, no. 8 (1900): 273. 

78. Ibid., 40, no. 10 (1902): 354. 

79. Ibid., 39, no. 15 (1902): 656. 

80. New York Times, Mar. 4, 1902, 3, and Mar. 30, 1902, 2. 

81. Electrician 48, no. 22 (1902): 848. 

82. Electrical World AO, no. 16 (1902): 629. 

83. “The Politics of Radio Telegraphy,” Edinburgh Review 207 (Apr. 1908): 466. 

84. Marconi to II. Cuthbert Hall, Oct. 1, 1902, GMB Private Collection. 

85. Electrical World 42, no. 21 (1903): 836; John Watcrbury, “Wireless Telegraphy 
Conference,” North American Review 177 (Nov. 1903): 655-66. For further 
information on the conferences see John D. Tomlinson, The International Control 
of Radio Communications (Ann Arbor, Mich.: J. W. Edwards, 1945), 11-45. 

86. Electrical World 42, no. 11 (1903): 423. 


336 



Notes to Pages 122-29 


87. Delegates to the International Wireless Conference to John Hay, Secretary of 
State, Aug. 14, 1903, NA, box 88. 

88. Electrical World 46, no. 3 (1905): 86, and 43, no. 17 (1904): 759; New York 
Times, July 10, 1904, pt. 5, 26. 

89. Electrical World 46, no. 3 (1905): 86. 

90. Archer, History of Radio, 75. 

91. Electrical World 44, no. 1 (1904): 25; Neu> York Times, June 26, 1904, 1. 

92. New York Tribune, May 29, 1904, 6; New York Times, May 29, 1904, 3. 

93. Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Wireless Telegraph Board, Apr. 6, 1904, NA, box 
84; W.H.G. Bullard, “The Naval Radio Service,” Proc. Inst. Radio Engineers 3, 
no. 1 (1915): 9-10. 

94. Electrical World 44, no. 8 (1904): 284, and 44. no. 7 (1904): 241. 

95. New York Times, Sept. 10, 1906, 6. 

96. New York Tribune, July 6, 1904, 6. 

97. Electrical World 43, no. 23 (1904): 1068; 44, no. 9 (1904): 319. 

98. Ibid., 43, no. 24 (1904); 48, no. 10 (1906): 470. 

99. New York Times, Sept. 10, 1906, 6. 

100. NESCO press release, Oct. 17, 1904, Clark Collection. 

101. H. J. Glaubitz, letter to the editor. Electrical World 43, no. 26 (1904): 1201. 

102. Ibid. 

103. Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America to Chief, Bureau of Equip- 
ment, May 9, 1904, NA, box 89. 

104. Ibid., May 2, 1904, NA, box 89. 

105. Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of Amer- 
ica, May 10, 1904, NA, box 89. 

106. Comdr. F. M. Barber to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, July 25, 1903, NA, box 90. 
Barber was able to get Slaby-Arco down to $1,077.50 a set. 

107. Ibid., July 8, 1904, NA, box 12. 

108. Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Commandant, Navy Yard, New York, Nov. 25, 

1903, NA, box 88; Comdr. F. M. Barber to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, July 10, 

1904, NA, box 12. 

109. James Boyle to Fessenden, Sept. 17, 1904, Clark Collection. 

110. Comdr. F. M. Barber to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, Feb. 20, 1906, NA, box 
89. 

111. George H. Clark, “The Life and Creations of John Stone Stone” (1946), 92-94, 
Clark Collection. 

112. Fessenden to Charles Bonaparte, Secretary of the Navy, May 5, 1906; Fessenden 
to President Theodore Roosevelt, May 14, 1906; NESCO to Adm. Henry N. 
Manney, June 14, 1905, Clark Collection. 

113. Fessenden to Charles Bonaparte, Secretary of the Navy, May 5, 1906, Clark 
Collection. 

114. Secretary of the Navy to Secretary of Agriculture, Sept. 15, 1903, NA, box 83. 

115. Charles Bonaparte, Secretary of the Navy, to Fessenden, Apr. 19, 1906, Clark 
Collection. 

116. NESCO vs. De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company et aL, 1906, Clark Collec- 
tion. 


337 



Notes to Pages 130-36 


117. Fessenden to President Theodore Roosevelt, May 14, 1906, Clark Collection. 

118. Comdr. F. M. Barber to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, June 23, 1904, N A, box 12. 

119. A. W. Greely, Chief, Signal Officer, U.S. Army, to Hay Walker, Jr., and Thomas 
Given, Nov. 9, 1905, Clark Collection. 

120. Comdr. F. M. Barber to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, Sept. 14, 1903, NA, box 89. 

121. Hay Walker, Jr., to Fessenden, Mar. 29, 1905, NC Papers. 

122. Fessenden to Lt. Comdr. Cleland Davis, Nov. 30, 1906, Clark Collection. 

123. Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Comdr. F. M. Barber, Aug. 15, 1902, NA, box 85. 

124. Hay Walker, Jr., to James Hayden, Nov. 15, 1905, NC Papers. 

125. Information on the contract for these stations is from the New York Times, July 
10, 1904, pt. 5, 26; H. W. Young to Hay Walker, Jr., June 29, 1904; NESCO 
memo, “In Regard to the West India Wireless Contract,” May 7, 1906, Clark 
Collection. 

126. Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Comdr. F. M. Barber, July 9, 1904, NA, box 12. 

127. Comdr. F. M. Barber to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, Nov. 29, 1904, NA, box 89. 

128. Lee De Forest, Father of Radio (Chicago: Wilcox & Follett, 1950), 178-81; 
Frank E. Butler, “How Wireless Came to Cuba,” Radio Broadcast, Nov. 1924— 
Apr. 1925, 916-20. 

129. De Forest to Frank Butler, Apr. 20, 1906; De Forest to Francis X. Butler, Oct. 14, 
1905, Clark Collection. 

130. Lee De Forest, Diary, Aug. 1905, Library of Congress. 

131. Clark, “Life and Creations of John Stone Stone,” 116. 

132. Capt. C. H. Arnold, President, Wireless Telegraph Board, to Chief, Bureau of 
Equipment, July 10, 1903, NA, box 85. 

133. Howeth, History of Communications, 65. 

134. George H. Clark, “Radio in the U.S. Navy,” Clark Collection. 

135. Howeth, History of Communications, 65. 

136. Lt. J. M. Hudgins to Secretary of the Navy, Feb. 15, 1904, NA, box 83. 

137. Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Commander in Chief, North Atlantic Fleet, Mar. 
22, 1905, NA, box 32; F. S. Doane, Master of Light- Vessel no. 85, to Capt. W G. 
Cutler, Inspector, July 20, 1909, NA, box 79; W. G. Cutler to Lighthouse Board, 
July 21, 1909, NA, box 79; Susan J. Douglas, “Exploring Pathways in the Ether” 
(Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1979), 306-12. 

138. Paullin, Paullin's History, 406. Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1883, 
17, 107; 1884, 16-19. 

139. Commandant, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C., to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, 
Mar. 9, 1909, NA, box 76. 

140. Clark, “Radio in War and Peace,” 316-17. 

141. Ibid., 317. 

142. Chief, Bureau of Equipment, to Commandant, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C., 
June 5, 1907, NA, box 13. 

143. S. M. Kintner, General Manager, NESCO, to General Storekeeper, Navy Yard, 
Brooklyn, Oct. 5, 1911, NA, box 13. 

144. John Firth, Wireless Specialty Apparatus Company, to Chief, Bureau of Equip- 
ment, Nov. 9, 1909, NA, box 82; see also complaints from William Walker, 
Massachusetts Wireless Equipment Company, to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, 


338 



Notes to Pages 137-47 


Dec. 31, 1908, NA, box 75; and Douglas, “Exploring Pathways in the Ether,” 
159-60. 

145. Commandant, Navy Yard, Mare Island, to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, Apr. 16, 
1904, NA, box 83. 

146. Lt. E. H. Dodd, Mare Island, to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, Apr. 6, 1910, NA, 
box 81. 

147. W. L. Howard, Inspection Officer, to Commandant, U.S. Navy Yard, Phila- 
delphia, June 16, 1910, NA, box 80; C. D. Mills, Chief Electrician, Tatoosh 
Island, Wash., to Inspector, Navy Yard, Puget Sound, Jan. 19, 1910, NA, box 80; 
Inspector of Equipment to Commandant, Navy Yard, Norfolk, June 29, 1909, 
NA, box 80; Chief Electrician, Navy Yard, to Inspector of Equipment, Navy 
Yard, Charleston, S.C., June 10, 1909, NA, box 78. 

148. New York Times, Sept. 27, 1906, 7. 

149. Electrical World 46, no. 5 (1905): 165; New York Times, Sept. 10, 1906, 6. 

150. New York Times, Nov. 19, 1904, 1; New York Herald, July 14, 1904. 

151. James R. Sheffield, Attorney for Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of Amer- 
ica, to President Theodore Roosevelt, July 19, 1904, Hooper Papers, Library of 
Congress, Washington, D.C. 

152. Comdr. F. M. Barber to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, June 1, 1906, NA, box 90. 

153. Electrical World 48, no. 19 (1906): 904. 

154. New York Times, Nov. 4, 1906, 7. 

155. Ibid., Nov. 3, 1907, pt. 5, 1. 

156. Electrical World 49, no. 2 (1907): 83. Details on the conference are in Interna- 
tional Wireless Convention (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 
1907), Clark Collection. 

157. Comdr. F. M. Barber to Chief, Bureau of Equipment, Nov. 9, 1906, NA, box 89. 

158. International Wireless Convention. 

159. “The Politics of Radio-Telegraphy,” Edinburgh Review 207, no. 424(1908): 466. 

160. New York Times, Jan. 16, 1906, 8. 

161. “Politics of Radio-Telegraphy,” 473. 

162. “President Roosevelt and Emperor William at Odds,” Current Literature 42 
(Apr. 1907): 372; “Dictator of Europe,” Harper’s Weekly 49 (July 8, 1905): 974; 
“Chief of Police of Europe,” Review of Reviews 32 (July 1905): 93. 

163. W. Van Schierbrand, “Is Kaiser Wilhelm II of Normal Mind?” Lippmcott’s 78 
(Nov. 1906): 619-25. 

FIVE: INVENTORS AS ENTREPRENEURS 

1. Wyn Wachhorst, Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth (Cambridge: MIT 
Press, 1981), 40-42. 

2. Ray Stannard Baker, “Marconi’s Achievement,” McClure’s Magazine 18 (Feb. 
1902): 291. 

3. Electrical World 42, no. 11 (1903): 468. 

4. Electrician 48, no. 13 (1902): 501. 

5. New York Times, Oct. 17, 1907, 1; Electrical World 50, no. 17 (1907): 794. 

6. New York Times, Sept. 26, 1907, 8, and Oct. 18, 1907, 10. 


339 


Notes to Pages 147-55 


7. Ibid., Oct. 17, 1907, 1. 

8. New York Tribune, Oct. 18, 1907, 6. 

9. Outlook 87 (Oct. 26, 1907): 372. 

10. “Transatlantic Marconigrams Now and Hereafter,” World’s Work 15 (Dec. 1907): 
9624. 

11. Reginald Fessenden, “Regular Wireless Service between America and Europe,” 
Scientific American Supplement 64, no. 1663 (1907): 319. Electrician 60, no. 6 
(1907): 200; 60, no. 3 (1907): 77, 100; 60, no. 8 (1907): 273. 

12. Electrical World 49, no. 26 (1907): 1315. 

13. Review of Reviews 36 (Dec. 1907): 647. 

14. Ibid., 37 (Feb. 1908): 131. 

15. “The Lessons of the Recent Wall Street Panic,” World's Work 14 (May 1907): 
8829. 

16. New York Times, Oct. 23, 1907, 1; William Justus Boies, “Trust Companies and 
the Panic,” Review of Reviews 36 (Dec. 1907): 680. 

17. Boies, “Trust Companies,” 680. 

18. Review of Reviews 37 (Feb. 1908): 131. 

19. Robert Sobel, Panics on Wall Street (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 305-21. 

20. Frank Fayant, “The Wireless Telegraph Bubble,” Success Magazine 10 (June 
1907): 387. 

21. “Transatlantic Marconigrams,” 9626. 

22. George H. Clark, “The Life and Creations of John Stone Stone” (1946), 145-46, 
Clark Collection. 

23. H. W. Southworth to Lawrence Sherman, Trustee for Stone Telegraph and Tele- 
phone, Nov. 29, 1909, Clark Collection. 

24. Helen Fessenden, Fessenden: Builder of Tomorrows (New York: Coward-Mc- 
Cann, 1940), 126. 

25. Fessenden to Hay Walker, Jr., Jan. 24 and Feb. 11, 1905, NC Papers. 

26. Ibid., July 7, 1905, NC Papers. 

27. Fessenden, Fessenden, 126. 

28. Fessenden to Hay Walker, Jr., Dec. 14, 1904, NC Papers. 

29. Fessenden, Fessenden, 141. 

30. Hay Walker, Jr., to Fessenden, Aug. 10, 1905, NC Papers. 

31. Fessenden, Fessenden, 141. 

32. Fessenden to Hay Walker, Jr., Dec. 22, 1905, NC Papers. 

33. Fessenden to H. W. Fisher, Apr. 5, 1906; Fessenden to Charles Bright, June 11, 
1906, Clark Collection. 

34. S. M. Kintner, “Pittsburgh's Contribution to Radio,” Proc. Inst. Radio Engineers 
20, no. 12 (1932): 1853; Fessenden to Clarence Feldman, Delft University, Hol- 
land, 1906, Clark Collection. 

35. Fessenden to Clarence Feldman, Jan. 11, 1906, Clark Collection. 

36. Fessenden to Scientific American, Jan. 8. 1907. 

37. Ernst Alexanderson, Reminiscences, 16, 18, Columbia Oral History Library; Al- 
exanderson to Fessenden, June 18, 1906, Clark Collection. 

38. Alexanderson, Reminiscences, 17-18; Gleason Archer, The History of Radio to 
1926 (New York: American Historical Society, 1938), 69, 115-18. 


340 



Notes to Pages 155-64 


39. Fessenden to A. Dempster at G.E., Sept. 28, 1906, Clark Collection. 

40. Fessenden to H. G. Heist at G.E., Nov. 6, 1906, Clark Collection; Alexanderson, 
Reminiscences, 18-19. 

41. Transcript of telephone conversation between A. E. Kennelly and Fessenden, Oct. 
18, 1906, Clark Collection. 

42. Fessenden to J. N. Aylesworth, East Orange, N.J., Aug. 28, 1906, Clark Collec- 
tion. 

43. Fessenden, Fessenden, 153-54. 

44. Fessenden to Clarence Feldman, Sept. 21, 1906, and June 11, 1907, Clark 
Collection. 

45. Fessenden to Comdr. Cleland Davis, Nov. 30, 1906, Clark Collection. 

46. Hay Walker, Jr., to Fessenden, June 17, 1905, NC Papers. 

47. Fessenden to Bell Telephone, Dec. 12, 1906, Clark Collection. 

48. Memo, Apr. 2, 1907, cited in W. Rupert Maclaurin, Invention and Innovation m 
the Radio Industry (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 65. 

49. John Brooks, Telephone: The First Hundred Years (New York: Harper & Row, 
1976), 122-24. 

50. Leonard S. Reich, The Making of American Industrial Research: Science and 
Business at G.E. and Bell, 1876-1926 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 
1985), chap. 7. 

51. Maclaurin, Invention and Innovation, 66. 

52. Fessenden to Thomas Given, June 26, 1907, NC Papers. 

53. Thomas Given to Fessenden, June 28, 1907, NC Papers. 

54. Hay Walker, Jr., to Fessenden, Oct. 25, 1907, NC Papers. 

55. Fessenden to Franklin Reed, Jan. 2, 1908; Fessenden to Cleland Davis, July 16, 
1908, Clark Collection. 

56. For example, Charles D. Guthrie, Chief Operator, USS Kentucky, Guantanamo 
Bay, Cuba, to Fessenden, Jan. 18, 1907, Clark Collection. 

57. R. E. Thompson to George Clark, Recollections of John Firth, 1941; Frank A. 
Hinners to George Clark, Recollections of John Firth, June 9, 1941, Clark 
Collection. 

58. Fessenden, Fessenden, 162. 

59. Frank A. Hinners to George Clark, June 9, 1941, in Firth, Reminiscences. 

60. Fessenden, Fessenden, 163. 

61. Hay Walker, Jr., and Fessenden to Col. John Firth, Sept. 12, 1908, NC Papers. 

62. Hay Walker, Jr., to Fessenden, Aug. 25, 1908, NC Papers. 

63. Fessenden to Hay Walker, Jr., Sept. 24, 1908, NC Papers. 

64. From Stokes’s obituary, New York Times, May 20, 1926, 25. 

65. Fessenden to Hay Walker, Jr., Oct. 19, 1908, NC Papers. 

66. Fessenden to Clarence Feldman, Feb. 9, 1909; B. A. MacNab to Fessenden, May 
12, 1909; Fessenden to MacNab, June 2, 1909, all in Clark Collection. P. 
Schubert, The Electric Word (New York: Macmillan, 1928), 79-80. 

67. Fessenden to T. N. Vail, Feb. 25, 1910, Clark Collection. 

68. Cited in Maclaurin, Invention and Innovation, 64, 66. 

69. Fessenden, Fessenden, 171. 

70. Bent to Fessenden, Aug. 22, 1910, NC Papers. 


341 


Notes to Pages 164-75 


71. Alexanderson, Reminiscences, 16-17. 

72. George Clark to D. W. Todd, Nov. 24, 1910, Clark Collection. 

73. Unsigned letter to Hay Walker, Jr., May 5, 1911, NC Papers. 

74. Hay Walker, Jr., to Fessenden, Dec. 10, 1910, NC Papers. 

75. Francis Clay to Fessenden, Jan. 7, 1911, NC Papers. 

76. Fessenden, Fessenden, 183-87; and Brant Rock staff to Hay Walker, Jr., Dec. 30, 
1910, NC Papers. 

77. Fessenden to Francis Clay, Nov. 29, 1910, NC Papers. 

78. Fessenden, Fessenden, 191. 

79. Lee De Forest, Diary, Sept. 30, 1906, Library of Congress. 

80. Marconi to H. Cuthbert Hall, July 11, 1904, GMB Private Collection. 

81. Samuel Lubell, “Magnificent Failure,” Saturday Evening Post, Jan. 24, 1942, 21; 
De Forest to Frank Butler, Oct. 23, 1906, Clark Collection. 

82. De Forest, Diary, Sept. 30, 1906. 

83. Lubell, “Magnificent Failure,” 36. 

84. Maclaurin, Invention and Innovation, 46-48. 

85. J. A. Fleming, letter to the editor, Electrical World 48, no. 23 (1906): 1117. 

86. Electrical World 48. no. 18 (1906): 836. 

87. Lubell, “Magnificent Failure," 36. 

88. Lloyd Espenschied et al., “Discussion of ‘A History of Some Foundations of 
Modern Radio-Electronic Technology,’ ” Proc. Inst. Radio Engineers 47, no. 7 
(1959): 1263. 

89. Donald G. Little, Reminiscences, 6, Columbia Oral History Library. 

90. Lloyd Espenschied, Reminiscences, 6-8, Columbia Oral History Library. 

91. De Forest interviewed by Gordon Greb (1959), 6, Columbia Oral History 
Library. 

92. George G. Blake, History of Radio Telegraphy and Telephony (London: Chap- 
man & Hall, 1928), 159; Arthur H. Morse, Radio: Beam and Broadcast (London: 
Ernest Benn, 1925), 30-31, 75 ff. 

93. Morse, Radio, 75; Blake, History of Radio, 185-86; George W. Pierce, Princi- 
ples of Wireless Telegraphy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1910). 

94. De Forest to Frank Butler, Apr. 22, 1907, Clark Collection. 

95. New York Times, Feb. 14, 1909, 1. 

96. Herbert T. Wade, “Wireless Telegraphy by the De Forest System,” Review of 
Reviews 35, no. 16 (1907): 685. 

97. Electrical World 57, no. 15 (1911): 923. 

98. New York Times, Dec. 17, 1906, 10. 

99. Ibid., Jan. 23, 1910, sec. 5, 6. 

100. Electrical World 55, no. 2 (1910): 86. 

101. Erik Barnouw, A Tower in Babel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 
26. 

102. Lubell, “Magnificent Failure,” 36. 

103. Ibid., 38; De Forest to Frank Butler, Mar. 2, 1908, Clark Collection; Electrical 
World 51, no. 18 (1908): 898; Lee De Forest, “Progress in Radio Telephony,” 
Electrical World 53, no. 1 (1909): 13. 

104. Lubell, “Magnificent Failure,” 38; De Forest to George Clark, Jan. 17, 1933, 
Clark Collection. 


342 



Notes to Pages 175-83 


105. De Forest to Frank Butler, July 2, 1907, Clark Collection; Lubell, “Magnificent 
Failure,” 38. 

106. New York Times, Jan. 14, 1910, 2; Electrical World 55, no. 2 (1910): 98. 

107. Lubell, “Magnificent Failure,” 38. 

108. “Warns Wives of Careers," New York Times, July 28, 1911, 18. 

109. Lubell, “Magnificent Failure,” 21. 

110. “The Ownership of Wireless Equipment,” Wireless Age 2, no. 10 (1915): 719; 
Thomas E. Clark, Reminiscences, 13, 33, Columbia Oral History Library. 

111. James L. Charlton, “Wireless Telegraphy on the Atlantic Coast of the United 
States,” Electrical World 59, no. 4 (1912): 197. 

112. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Navigation (Washington, D.C.: Govern- 
ment Printing Office, 1911), app. M, 202; John Firth to S. M. Kintner, May 8, 
1911, Clark Collection. 

113. Clark, Reminiscences, 13. 

114. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Navigation (1911), app. M, 206; (1912), 
38. C. A. Butlin to Capt. Simpson, Marconi Wireless, Oct. 25, 1911, Clark 
Collection. 

115. Collier’s, May 7, 1910; Electrical World 56, no. 10 (1910): 547. 

116. Marconi as cited in Electrical World 57, no. 25 (1911): 1592. 

117. See Hugh Aitken’s excellent description of the development of the disc dis- 
charger in Syntony and Spark: The Origins of Radio (New York: John Wiley & 
Sons, 1976), 276-80. 

118. Ibid., 277. 

119. Electrical World 57, no. 25 (1911): 1592; Donald McNicol, Radio’s Conquest of 
Space (New York: Murray Hill Books, 1946), 102-3; W. J. Baker, A History of 
the Marconi Company (London: Methuen, 1970), 117-20. 

120. Robert Merriam has a working disc discharger on display at his New England 
Wireless Museum in East Greenwich, R.I. 

121. W. J. Baker, History of the Marconi Company, 112; New York Times, Mar. 29, 
1908, pt. 3, 2. 

122. Admiralty to the Marconi Company, cited in W. P. Jolly, Marconi (New York: 
Stein & Day, 1972), 157-58. 

123. Aitken, Syntony and Spark, 261-82; Baker, History of the Marconi Company, 
120; New York Times, May 9, 1910, 8. 

124. Cited in Keith Geddes, Guglielmo Marconi: 1874-1937 (London: Her Majesty’s 
Stationery Office, 1974), 27. 

125. Jolly, Marconi, 164-67. 

126. John Bottomley to H. Cuthbert Hall, Jan. 10 and Jan. 17, 1908, Chelmsford 
Collection. 

127. Ibid., Jan. 10, 1908; H. Cuthbert Hall to John Bottomley, Jan. 19, 1908, 
Chelmsford Collection. 

128. John Bottomley to Marconi, Jan. 17, 1908, Chelmsford Collection. 

129. Thom Mayes, “A Brief History of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of 
America, 1899-1919,” pamphlet in the Chelmsford Collection. 

130. New York Times, Feb. 2, 1912, 1; Baker, History of the Marconi Company, 137. 

131. Marconi to Beatrice O’Brien Marconi, Dec. 13, 1908, GMB Private Collection. 

132. New York Times, Jan. 15, 1911; Baker, History of the Marconi Company, 133. 


343 



Notes to Pages 183-97 


133. Geddes, Guglielmo Marconi, 28; New York Times, Feb. 22, 1911, 4, and Nov. 4, 
1911, 7. 

134. New York Times, Feb. 22, 1911, 4. 

135. Ibid., June 16, 1910, 1. 

136. Ibid. 

137. Ibid., May 30, 1911, 1. 

138. John L. Hogan to S. M. Kintner of NESCO, May 10, 1911, Clark Collection. 

139. John Bottomley, Annual Report, Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of Amer- 
ica, 1912, Chelmsford Collection. 

140. Marconi to Beatrice O’Brien Marconi, Mar. 22, 1912, GMB Private Collection. 

141. Ibid., Apr. 29, 1912, GMB Private Collection. 

SIX: POPULAR CULTURE AND POPULIST TECHNOLOGY 

1. New York Times, Nov. 3, 1907, pt. 5, 1. 

2. Charles Barnard, “A Young Expert in Wireless Telegraphy,” St. Nicholas 35 
(April 1, 1908): 530-32. 

3. John Higham, “The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s,” in The 
Origins of Modem Consciousness, ed. John Weiss (Detroit: Wayne State Univer- 
sity Press, 1965), 26-28. 

4. See Roderick Nash’s introduction in The Call of the Wild, ed. Nash (New York: 
George Braziller, 1970), 2-4. 

5. Ernest Thompson Seton, Boy Scouts of America: A Handbook of Woodcraft, 
Scouting, and Life-craft, excerpted ibid., 20. 

6. E. Anthony Rotundo, “Learning about Manhood: Gender Ideals and the Middle- 
Class Family in Nineteenth-Century America” (Paper delivered at the Smithso- 
nian- Smith Conference on the Conventions of Gender, Feb. 16-17, 1984), 11. 

7. Theodore P. Greene, America’s Heroes (New York: Oxford University Press, 
1970), 70. 

8. Seton, Boy Scouts of America, 20. 

9. E. F. Bleiler, ed., Eight Dime Novels (New York: Dover, 1974). 

10. Ibid., 67, 65, 126. 

11. Greene, America's Heroes, 113, 128. 

12. Russel Nye, The Unembarrassed Muse (New York: Dial, 1950), 169. 

13. See John Kasson, Amusing the Million (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978). 

14. Robert A. Morton, “The Amateur Wireless Operator,” Outlook 94 (Jan. 15, 
1910): 131. 

15. Electrical World 51, no. 9 (1908): 423; 54, no. 24 (1909): 1401. 

16. For infonnation on crystal receivers, see “History of the Wireless Specialty 
Apparatus Company,” dictated by G. W. Pickard to G. H. Clark, 1931, Clark 
Collection; Electrical World 48, no. 23 (1906): 1100; A. P. Morgan, Wireless 
Telegraphy and Telephony (New York: Norman W. Henley, 1912), 52, 57; Elmer 
E. Bucher, Practical Wireless Telegraphy (New York: Wireless Press, 1917), 132; 
De Forest to Electrical World 48, no. 10 (1906): 491; WSA to Director of Naval 
Intelligence, London, July 10, 1908, Clark Collection, Electrical World 48, no. 
21 (1906): 994. 

17. Allen Chapman, The Radio Boys’ First Wireless (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 
1922), 63. 


344 



Notes to Pages 197-203 


18. Edgar S. Love, Reminiscences, 2, Columbia Oral History Library. 

19. W. V. Albert, Chief Electrician, USN, to Commandant, Navy Yard, Boston, Feb. 
26, 1908, NA, box 76. Hugh G. J. Aitken provided the information on the Model 
T. Coils. 

20. Donald G. Little, Reminiscences, 5, Columbia Oral History Library, New York 
Times, May 31, 1909, 1; E. L. Bragdon, Reminiscences, 4, Columbia Oral History 
Library; Love, Reminiscences, 2. 

21. Clinton B. DeSoto, Two Hundred Meters and Down: The Story of Amateur Radio 
(West Hartford, Conn.: American Radio Relay League, 1936), 3. 

22. Electrical World 57, no. 13 (1911): 760; W. B. English, Jr., United Wireless, 
Boston, to the Bureau of Equipment, Jan. 5, 1910, NA, box 80; New York Times, 
Mar. 29, 1912, 12. 

23. Francis A. Collins, The Wireless Man (New York: Century, 1912), 29. 

24. Francis A. Collins, “An Evening at the Wireless Station,” St. Nicholas 39 (Oct. 
1912): 1110. 

25. Ibid., 1111. 

26. Victor Appleton, Tom Swift and His Wireless Message (New York: Grosset & 
Dunlap, 1911), 179-96. 

27. A. R. Carman, “In Marconiland,” Canadian Magazine 32 (Mar. 1909): 426-33; 
George A. England, “Wooed by Wireless,” Cosmopolitan 44 (Apr. 1908): 497- 
501; J. F. Wilson, “Sparks,” McClure's Magazine 7>T (June 1911): 149-54. 

28. New York Times, Aug. 20, 1967, 88. 

29. Edgar Felix, Reminiscences, Columbia Oral History Library. 

30. Hugo Gemsback, letter to the editor, New York Times, Mar. 29, 1912, 12. 

31. Harper's Weekly 53 (Jan. 30, 1909): 1. 

32. Ibid. 

33. New York Times, Jan. 26, 1909, 1. 

34. “A Wireless Victory,” Harper's Weekly 53 (Jan. 30, 1909): 7. 

35. Arthur D. Howden Smith, “Men of the Wireless,” Putnam’s 6 (Apr. 1909): 73- 
74. 

36. “How Binns Flashed His Calls for Help,” New York Times, Jan. 26, 1909, 4. 

37. Ibid. 

38. Current Literature 46 (March 1909): 248. 

39. New York Times, Feb. 4, 1909, 8. 

40. Smith, “Men of the Wireless,” 76. 

41. New York Times, Jan. 27, 1909, 1. 

42. A. Henry Savage Landor, “The Latest Drama of the Sea,” Harper’s Weekly 53 
(Feb. 6, 1909): 7. 

43. New York Times, Feb. 6, 1909, 8. 

44. Smith, “Men of the Wireless,” 78. 

45. New York Times, Feb. 8, 1909, 8. 

46. Smith, “Men of the Wireless,” 78. 

47. Ibid., 77. 

48. Robert Sloss, “Binns and ‘The Men of the Broken Ear,’ ” Harper’s Weekly 53 (Feb. 
13, 1909): 15, 

49. Lloyd Jacquet, “The Heritage of the Radio Club of America,” Fiftieth Anniversary 
Golden Yearbook (New York: RCA, 1959), 4. 


345 



Notes to Pages 203-13 


50. Felix, Reminiscences. 

51. Collins, Wireless Man, 29-31. 

52. Felix, Reminiscences. 

53. Collins, “Evening at the Wireless Station,” 1113. 

54. Love, Reminiscences, 5; Bragdon, Reminiscences. 

55. Jacquet, “Heritage of the Radio Club.” 

56. Collins, Wireless Man, 26. 

57. De Soto, Two Hundred Meters, 23-24; Felix, Reminiscences; “The Birth of 
ARRL,” Fifty Years of ARRL, Hartford, Conn., 9 (copy at the New England 
Wireless and Steam Museum, East Greenwich, R.I.); New York Times, Jan. 31, 
1909, 18, and Mar. 29, 1912, 12. 

58. New York Times, Jan. 31, 1909, 18, and Mar. 29, 1912, 12. 

59. Electrical World 56, no. 3 (1910): 139; Collins, Wireless Man, 42-47. 

60. De Soto, Two Hundred Meters, 37-41. 

61. Ibid., 40. 

62. Ibid., 3, 28; New York Times, Jan. 31, 1909, 18. 

63. New York Times, Jan. 28, 1910, 8; Morton, “Amateur Wireless Operator,” 131. 

64. De Soto, Two Hundred Meters, 23-24. 

65. Collins, “An Evening at the Wireless Station,” 1113. 

66. Bragdon, Reminiscences, 6. 

67. Francis Hart, logbook, entry for Nov. 23, 1907, Clark Collection. 

68. New York Times, Jan. 28, 1910, 8, and Jan. 30, 1910, 4; Electrical World 57, no. 
13 (1911): 760; Morton, “Amateur Wireless Operator.” 

69. Electrical World 55, no. 10 (1910): 610. 

70. Benjamin Wolf, Chief Electrician, U S. Navy Yard, New York, to B. F. Walling, 
Capt. of Yard, Jan. 10, 1910, NA, box 82. 

71. Hart logbook, entries for Jan. 9, Sept. 18, and Sept. 21, 1909. 

72. Electrical World 56, no. 3 (1910): 139. 

73. Scientific American 106, no. 12 (1912): cover; New York Times, Mar 31, 1912, 
14, and Apr. 21, 1912, pt. 5, 2. 

74. Annual Report of the Navy Department (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing 
Office, 1909), 280. 

75. Morton, “Amateur Wireless Operator,” 132-33. 

76. Incident cited in New York Times, Feb. 1, 1910, 8; Edwin L. Powell, letter to the 
editor, Scientific American 106, no. 25 (1912): 563. 

77. John V. Purssell, letter to the editor, Scientific American 106, no. 23 (1912): 515. 

78. Powell, letter to the editor. 

79. F. L. Coombs, letter to the editor, New York Times, Apr. 21, 1912, 12. 

80. Purssell, letter to the editor. 

81. FI. E. Rowson, letter to the editor, Scientific American 106, no. 23 (1912): 515. 

82. New York Times, Apr. 29, 1910, 18. 

83. Electrical World 67, no. 9 (1906): 437. 

84. Lt. S. C. Hooper to Chief, Bureau of Steam Engineering, “Report on Radio- 
Telegraphy in the Atlantic Fleet, Spring Target Practice, 1912,” Hooper Papers, 
Library of Congress. 

85. S. C. Hooper, “Navy History: Radio, Radar, Sonar,” transcript of recordings, 


346 



Notes to Pages 213-24 


Office of Naval History. Washington, D.C., cited in L. S. Howeth, History of 
Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy (Washington, D.C.: Gov- 
ernment Printing Office, 1963), 193. 

SEVEN: THE TITANIC DISASTER AND THE FIRST RADIO REGULATION 

1. Henry Cabot Lodge to Elihu Thomson, Feb. 3, 1908, Clark Collection. 

2. New York Times, Jan. 30, 1909, 8. 

3. Ibid., feb. 4, 1912, 12. 

4. “Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Naval Affairs of the 
House of Representatives on H. J. Resolution 95,” 1910, cited in L. S. Howeth, 
History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy (Washington, 
D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1963), 156. 

5. Ibid. 

6. For a general discussion of overexploitation of common property resources, see 
Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” in Economic Foundations of 
Property Law, ed. Bruce A. Ackerman (Boston: Little, Brown, 1975), 4. 

7. House Reports, 60th Cong. 2d sess., Dec. 7, 1908— March 4, 1909, vol. 1, report 
2086, 2. 

8. Senate Documents, 60th Cong., 2d sess., 1908-9, vol. 21, doc. 700. 

9. Public Law 262, 61st Cong.; see Frank J. Kahn, Documents of American Broad- 
casting (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968), 6-7; House Reports, 61st 
Cong., 1st and 2d sess., 1909-10, vol. 3, report 1373. 

10. House Reports, 61st Cong., 2d sess., 1909-10, vol. 2, 1910, report 892, 6. 

11. Ibid., 6, 8, letter from P. Schwarzhaupt. 

12. House Reports, 61st Cong., 2d sess., 1909-10, vol. 2, 1910, report 924, 2; New 
York Times, Mar. 29, 1910, 6. 

13. House Reports, 61st Cong., 1st and 2d sess., 1909-10, vol. 3, 1910, report 1373. 

14. NESCO to Senator P. C. Knox, Feb. 1, 1908, Clark Collection. 

15. House Reports, 61st Cong., 2d sess., 1909-10, vol. 2, 1910, report 924, 2. 

16. New York Times, Mar. 31, 1910, 10. 

17. Ibid., Apr. 29, 1910, 18; Clinton B. DeSoto, Two Hundred Meters and Down: The 
Story of Amateur Radio (West Hartford, Conn.: American Radio Relay League, 
1936), 32. 

18. Hugo Gemsback, “The Old EIC Company Days,” Radio-Craft, March 1938, 635. 

19. George E. Burghead, “A History of the Radio Club of America, Inc.,” Fiftieth 
Anniversary Golden Yearbook (New York: RCA, 1959), 17. 

20. Electrical World 51, no. 12 (1908): 590. 

21. New York Times, Mar. 23, 1912, 12. 

22. Ibid., Mar. 31, 1910, 10. For use of the t